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Dramatic dreams for Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - Back in Nucky Thompson's fictional Atlantic City, as imagined by HBO, there was an arts district all right.

A tourism district as imagined in a master plan for the Inlet, the Boardwalk, Gardiner's Basin, and Atlantic and Pacific Aves.
A tourism district as imagined in a master plan for the Inlet, the Boardwalk, Gardiner's Basin, and Atlantic and Pacific Aves.Read more

ATLANTIC CITY - Back in Nucky Thompson's fictional Atlantic City, as imagined by HBO, there was an arts district all right.

Yeah, it was Angela Darmody painting half-faced man Richard Harrow in a house on the beach, and if you watched the last two episodes of Boardwalk Empire this month, you know how that all worked out.

Not too well.

Luckily, in the present-day and real-life Atlantic City, the arts district idea, unlike Angela, is alive and kicking, if a bit pie in the sky. But it's one of a bevy of ideas now under consideration as the master plan for Gov. Christie's tourism district takes shape.

Like Nucky - both real-life Johnson and fictional Thompson - Christie figures the best way to get things the way he wants is to take charge of the town.

And so, with Mayor Lorenzo Langford still concerned about "keeping our sovereignty," the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is rushing to complete plans for a dramatic reimagining of the Boardwalk, the Inlet, Gardiner's Basin, Atlantic Avenue, and Pacific Avenue.

If the preview shown last week by Richard Poulos of the Jerde Partnership of Venice, Calif., comes to fruition, Atlantic City will be sporting a little bit of South Beach, New Orleans, San Francisco, Vegas, Chicago, and maybe Fishtown (seeing that the arts district is headed for Ducktown). Not to mention Venice Beach, home of an eclectic freak show of a boardwalk if ever there was one.

Local input at the meeting called for a skate/BMX park to capitalize on an already thriving surf culture on Absecon Island, and a long-sought revival of Kentucky Avenue, home of the storied 500 Club and Club Harlem, as an entertainment mecca.

Tattoo parlor owner Jason Forslund, 25, who lives in Ventnor, made a compelling case for an indoor skate park, telling the commissioners that the elaborate light shows and wind sculptures proposed by the consultants didn't resonate with locals, who want a reason to stay on the island they grew up on (beyond the excellent waves).

He had a plan by the Wally Hollyday company, which has built destination skate parks in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Mount Shasta, Calif. One possible site is a former hotel at St. James Place and Pacific Avenue.

"I don't care about lasers, light shows, none of that," he said. "We want to change this community from the ground up."

CRDA executive director John Palmieri, appointed by Christie, said after the meeting that the idea for an arts district in the Ducktown neighborhood was still viable, provided there was a critical mass of local artists looking to take advantage of discounted rents and other proposed incentives to live and operate galleries and other arts venues in there. Ducktown is an old Italian neighborhood, home of Angelo's Fairmount Tavern, Formica's, and the White House Sub Shop, and also a renovated Dante Hall for the Performing Arts, now run by Stockton University. "We don't want to force it," he said.

He said Poulos' concerns about people getting lost in bad neighborhoods on their way to the Marina District were misplaced. "I don't think he was very elegant in that statement," he said. "We're not doing this just for the tourists."

Still, the big map of the outlines of the tourism district squeezes out most of the lower-income neighborhoods of Atlantic City, where violence, drugs, and unemployment are common.

Palmieri said the CRDA, which takes a 1.5 percent cut of casino revenues, wants to work with the city, as in a joint project to restore dilapidated Garden Pier and its history and art museum. He hopes the tourism district will spur the local economy and benefit all.

Which brings us back to Poulos' master plan draft. He envisions a Pacific Avenue that resembles Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, a bustling street of cafes and clubs and bars, and an Atlantic Avenue that looks more like a quaint resort Main Street, perhaps Park City, Utah, with a beach. He sees 365 days of things happening and a tourist trolley running down the center (don't mess with the jitneys, man). He wants to liven up Michigan Avenue all the way to the new Convention Center.

Gardiner's Basin - which already has an aquarium, a working fishing-boat culture, and the city's best breakfast spot, Gilchrist's - is only a few more attractions away from Fisherman's Wharf (he mentioned maybe a marine research institute).

He wants corporations (not casinos) to sponsor pavilions on the beach with attractions. He envisions the old Bader Field airport as a recreational waterfront park with fields and pathways (runways make fine bike paths), a place where the successful Dave Matthews Band Caravan would be one of just many such festivals (until they finally give it to a casino to develop).

He wants to fill in the "dead zones" of the Boardwalk with more food offerings (can you say food trucks?), and encourage casinos to have more friendly frontage, both on the Boardwalk and on Pacific Avenue. As for Chelsea, he's looking for more retail, possibly galleries and craft shops springing from that Arts District in nearby Ducktown.

And there's more. Such as a park near Boardwalk Hall (Kennedy Plaza and beyond) to host entertainment, like Millennium Park in Chicago, and a bustling outdoor Market, like Covent Gardens in London.

Stay tuned.