Millennials, everyone knows, love walkable cities (except when they don’t) so it’s undoubtedly an excellent thing as Atlantic City pivots toward rebranding itself as a 24-hour live-work-play destination that we have invested tens of millions of dollars in pedestrian amenities and infrastructure.
To celebrate our good fortune, the crack urban planners at Route 40 took a stroll the other day down the retail strip known as The Walk, since it was built to encourage visitors to travel, by foot, across the breadth of our fair city. Think of it as South Jersey’s answer to Las Ramblas.
Some Background on The Walk
Something like $60 millions of public monies were spent to finance The Walk, and that’s not counting the tax abatements or the money for The Bass Pro Shops. At the time Atlantic City still had, more or less, a regional monopoly on casino gambling. The challenge was to give people who came here—mostly from the suburbs—something to do when they weren’t sitting through speeches at the Convention Center or dropping their savings into the Ditsy Lobster* slot machine at Bally’s.
The solution was to create an outdoor shopping mall that would link up the new Convention Center back on Bacharach Boulevard to the world famous Atlantic City Boardwalk to the south.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has called The Walk “a dynamic urban retail entertainment project.” NJ Future gave it an award for smart development. “As a result of the project, the city’s annual visitors—including 35 million gamblers and conventioneers who have long complained about the lack of non-gaming attractions—now have someplace to go,” the group said. But that was 2005, oh so many moons ago.
The Walk in Practice
The first thing a visitor sees on exiting the Convention Center is the back-end of the Sheraton Hotel.
I don’t know the technical term for this architecture, but it conjures a heavily fortified military outpost on a hostile planet. At ground level is the Tun Tavern, named for a brewery in Philadelphia that was supposedly the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. Maybe that’s the legacy that’s being honored in the Tun’s façade, with its small-slit windows and bank-teller glass. The walls are slab-sided and featureless, the better to resist the fingernails of the desperate. Inside, I’m sure the Tun’s still charming. Outside it looks like a pillbox on Omaha Beach.
Before you get to the Tun though, there are the roughly seven lanes of traffic—two loading/unloading followed by another five of passenger drop-off. Fortunately the speed limit’s low enough that the cars—should there be any—are unlikely to be traveling at murderous speeds.
At certain times the Tun offers outdoor seating, giving guests an opportunity to engage in people watching, that most cherished of city-going pastimes. The Convention Center is connected directly to a train station, but nothing as charming as a train and hordes of visitors is visible. Instead there are five lanes of Michigan Avenue traffic and a surface parking lot.
Beyond the Tun, another forbidding, doorless stretch of hotel brings you to the corner of Michigan and Baltic—the first of four hectic intersections the wayward conventioneer must cross on his long journey to the sea.
Baltic is four lanes of westbound traffic one of which is an entrance to the AC Expressway. I don’t know what the official speed limit is, but drivers heading out of town seem to smell the exit, as it were. There are also two turn lanes off Michigan Avenue.
Should you cross Baltic intact you’re rewarded with a set of steps leading up to a GUESS Factory outlet, which will be some consolation if you’re sixteen and weigh 105 pounds and are coming out of the Convention Center for some reason. Never fear. Across Michigan is an Applebees “Neighborhood Grill & Bar” and an accompanying moat of surface parking, potted plants and steps.
Beyond the GUESS and we are now into The Walk proper, feeling the rhythm of our scuttling feet. To the right are sixty feet or so of blank wall: a large no-no in city planning circles, but what do I know. Midblock there’s a semi-circular driveway filled with cars.
No worries. You can walk around it easily enough. And just beyond the driveway is a Starbucks (good luck using the bathroom) and beyond that Arctic Avenue—the second of the four major arteries one must cross to get to the Boardwalk. This one is five lanes, narrowing to two as you cross Michigan.
Between Arctic and Atlantic the pedestrian experience improves (or degrades) somewhat, depending on your outlook. This is basically a strip mall.
I personally don’t find J. Crew, Dress Barn or The Beef Jerkey Outlet particularly dynamic, or urban at all, but it’s pretty useful as far as strip malls go. And they have embedded these little commemorative plaques in the sidewalk with the bios of former Miss Americas, in a nod to local history.
On the other hand, down the street you can buy an entire goat–Millennials love goat yoga, but these are for roasting, I assume–at the Mexican mini-mart.(#dynamicurbanretail) and I doubt they got any tax money at all.
Across Atlantic Avenue (seven lanes, you get the picture) and you are into the parking-garage district. Here Atlantic City comes into its own. An hour from Philadelphia–two and a half from New York–and fully 60% of the beach block of a city of 40,000 people is taken up with a ten-story parking garage. This was one thing during the heyday of the casino monopoly. It’s another today. No one of course would walk there, with their family. On vacation. Unless they’d been forced to flee on foot. But that’s kind of the point.
Twenty or thirty years ago, keeping the city a depressing hellscape was a bonus to casino owners, whose business was enhanced when their customers were too confused or frightened to go outside. Today the residue of that strategy is still with us, a sunk cost still paid for by the city.
Anyway, by Pacific Avenue, the masterminds behind The Walk have pretty much given up. The tired pedestrian is presented with more multi-story parking garages, blank walls, exhaust vents and the ingress and egress of many automobiles. And then buses. Fortunately, there’s a hospital across the street, in case you have a nervous breakdown. Because this is Atlantic City, the hospital has a Frank Sinatra Wing. #History.
The final stretch now. A few feet from the Boardwalk, they’ve actually gussied up the façade of the Bally’s Wild Wild West casino in keeping with its Wild Wild West theme, but it’s still a set of blank walls. Here, curiously, is where you’re still likely to encounter pedestrians if only because the beach is still the beach, and you’re only a few feet away from it, if you can believe that.
When you get to the Boardwalk, you are greeted not with stunning sea vistas, the sights of surf and sands (the dunes are in the way) but with an artificial Conestoga wagon, and the voice of Guy Fieri, who delivers a sales pitch from the PA system at roughly 90 second intervals.
But if you stand in front of Michigan Avenue, the music from the bar can drown out the sounds of the promo speakers. And you don’t have to listen to Guy at all.
Most ominously, if you really like The Walk and think it’s a boon to Atlantic City, is the collapse of the American retail sector. Our nation’s malls are dying at an alarming rate. Clothing and apparel are the largest e-commerce category and have been since 2015. Between 2010 and 2016 Amazon’s revenue grew from $16 billion to $80 billion. Sales were $60.5 billion in the fourth quarter 2017 ALONE. And restaurants are booming as people spend more money on eating out and “experiences” than they do on clothing.
Maybe the ironic wastrel youth of the future will find the hull of The Walk charming. Given the choice, I’d much rather spend the afternoon loitering around a dead mall than shopping in a live one. And Atlantic City has lots of good restaurants, and “experiences” that weren’t subsidized by the casinos. Last I checked you can’t buy a whole goat on Amazon.