ATLANTIC CITY - Most people would associate Atlantic City with Donald Trump, but it's the president-elect's powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose real estate holdings are currently bedeviling this floundering seaside resort.
Since 2004, Kushner's real estate company has owned seven acres of waterfront land at a northern corner of Atlantic City, home decades ago to the Garwood Mills department store - property that sits yawningly vacant but, in typical Atlantic City fashion, has also figured in a bribery plot that snagged a colorful middleman working on behalf of Kushner.
Kushner's company was never implicated. The city would like the property back.
Kushner paid $2 million and promised an elaborate $175 million upscale condominium complex. The deal included a clause designed to prevent him from just sitting on the property.
But since 2009, any legal right the city might have to regain control of the land has been tied to "market-driven conditions," which means Atlantic City's downturn allows Kushner, husband of Ivanka Trump, to continue to do nothing.
Kushner Co., a billion-dollar real estate firm presided over by Jared as its chief executive and based in New York City, said there was nothing to report on the property and declined further comment.
On the waterfront
The story of the demise of Trump's Atlantic City properties is well-known: Trump Plaza closed in 2014, stripped by then of its branding. Trump Castle/Marina is now Golden Nugget, owned by another billionaire with a reality TV show (Billion Dollar Buyer), Tilman Fertitta. And Trump Taj Mahal, just out of bankruptcy and owned by Carl Icahn, closed this fall amid union strife.
Atlantic City officials may have little control over casinos owned by billionaires.
But they are less inclined to give up on Kushner's property in the Northeast Inlet - a section of town where casino levies have been reinvested into housing and attractions like the aquarium in nearby Gardner's Basin, and which remains an integral part of their vision.
The Garwood Mills site and its mirror across New Hampshire Avenue, Gardner's Basin, are some of the tantalizingly underperforming waterfront parts of the city. By next year, the Northeast Inlet will be at the tip of a $50 million Boardwalk reconstruction project connecting all the way to Margate.
"If we got it back, it'd be really simple," said Elizabeth Terenik, the city's planning director. "We'd do a [request for proposals], which allows us to name a redeveloper and then negotiate. We'd seek someone we feel confident would be consistent with the city's vision."
The city no longer sees residential as the best use of the area. At his most optimistic, Mayor Don Guardian will reference Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The vacant Garwood Mills property, adjacent to the site of the old Captain Starn's Restaurant that was also to be incorporated into Kushner's plan, is now mostly popular with fishermen and people eating lunch with the view from their pickup trucks. It is currently assessed at about $1.3 million; 2016 taxes were about $46,000.
It sits at water's edge, facing Brigantine past the Absecon Inlet, heralded by the statue of King Neptune dividing it from Gardner's Basin, the low-key collection of the city's best breakfast (Gilchrist), laid-back bar food (Back Bay Ale House), summer R&B concerts, crafters, and micro food truck and container bar scene (Scales, Fish Heads). Think Philadelphia's Spruce Street Harbor Park, but tinier and funkier.
The city bought two of the lots in 1977 for $350,000 from the old Atlantic City Transportation Co., which had used the site for a trolley car barn. A third lot was purchased from the company in 1986 for $250,000.
Kushner once promised an upscale, 642-unit luxury high-rise condominium complex called the Landings at Caspian Point, complete with "public waterfront esplanade" - a kind of mini-Trump village to be developed by his company's Westminster Communities arm. Later, the plan was scaled back to low-rises, then mothballed.
Two years ago, Atlantic City officials again explored getting the property back under a clause that was part of the 2004 sale, to prevent a developer from holding onto the land but doing nothing with it. But with the change, the "reverter" clause could only be invoked if market conditions - housing prices, time on market - met certain threshholds, unlikely in the current climate.
Like a lot of protracted Atlantic City real estate deals, this one found its way to the prosecutor's office, in this case, then-U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, the same prosecutor who put Kushner's father in jail (and may have paid the political price going forward with Kushner's father-in-law, Trump).
In 2007, former City Council President Craig Callaway and two councilmen pleaded guilty to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes related to developing sites, including the Garwood Mills site, in a scheme federal authorities dubbed "Steal Pier." Also pleading guilty was Edward DiNicolantonio, a wheeler and dealer of Atlantic City politics, who touted deals for Garwood Mills and other contracts as a consultant. "Eddie DiNic," as he was known, was sentenced to nine months of house arrest for paying $45,000 in bribes to two city councilmen to grease the skids for developers. DiNicolantonio died Nov. 1 at age 79.
Kushner Co. was never charged. Repeated attempts by city administrations to wrestle the property back failed.
Terenik, the planning director, says the reverter clause in the city's redevelopment agreement uses residential markers to prevent the city from obtaining the land, which it now wants for commercial development. The city can point to Stockton University's campus now being built at the opposite corner of town as proof that projects can move ahead.
"It took into consideration, if the market was bad, they did not have to act on it," she said. "In other words, it would allow them more time."
Time has never been in short supply for this parcel of land. It's been vacant since 1976, when Garwood Mills burned down. After Kushner's purchase, it was not long before elected officials began voicing their impatience.
In 2008, city attorneys under then-Mayor Scott Evans tried to reacquire the land. But in 2009, under Mayor Lorenzo Langford, the amendments were added tying any reversion to market conditions.
Fast-forward to the current era, with Atlantic City under state control and the Gardner's Basin potential remaining like so much else, stymied by forces outside its borders. A plan to open a new distillery there, the site of old rum runners, was prevented by the state, which cited a Green Acres designation on the site. Just last week, Little Water Distillery was finally licensed as the city's first legal distillery, at another underutilized site, 807 Baltic Ave.
City Council President Marty Small said the Kushner site also deserves better. "Whether the property is in Kushner's hands or the City of Atlantic City's, it's in the best interest of that jewel to be developed," Small said.