As Revel casino closes, fight continues over property in the shadow of failed project
The three-story brick house on a mostly deserted street in the shadow of the failed $2.4 billion Revel Hotel Casino was Charlie Birnbaum's father's livelihood. It allowed him to reside a couple of blocks from his beloved beach and earn income by renting out two floors to tenants.
"This building gave him dignity. It was his refuge," Birnbaum, 67, said this week. "As it was for my mom when my dad passed away. Because of this building, my dad didn't die in a nursing home."
Not even the killing of his mother there during a 1998 robbery diminished Birnbaum's beautiful memories of what the house meant for his family.
It's those memories that keep him from accepting a buyout from the state agency in charge of redeveloping Atlantic City as the resort city's casino industry shrinks. Even with the hulking glass structure down the street preparing to sit empty after Revel closes this weekend, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority says it still wants to redevelop the nearby land where Birnbaum's house sits.
Birnbaum's lawyer and an attorney representing other tenants affected by the redevelopment plans met Thursday with a judge who is deciding whether the CRDA has the right to force them out through eminent domain. The judge heard arguments from both sides in May and scheduled another hearing for Oct. 6.
Though Birnbaum does not live at the house, he still goes there almost daily. He uses the first floor for his business tuning pianos played in the city's casinos, and to play the piano still in the living room, which is surrounded by pictures of his family.
"The building has been my refuge in a similar way," he said. "I've been able to continue making a living and doing what I do."
The building is one of a few inhabited properties that dot the landscape, surrounded by patches of grass and undeveloped lots with for-sale signs. His parents, Holocaust survivors, bought the house in 1969 when Birnbaum was in college, and he still rents out its two apartments.
Robert McNamara, an attorney representing Birnbaum from the Virginia-based Institute of Justice, said the CRDA doesn't have any concrete plans to redevelop the area and is out to "destroy Charlie's family home."
"They're just moving forward no matter what to create more vacant land in Atlantic City," McNamara said.
Elaine Zamansky, a spokeswoman for the redevelopment agency, said she couldn't comment on Birnbaum's case, but that the agency is "accumulating land that makes it attractive for developers to buy."
The opening of Revel two year ago had inspired plans for the surrounding South Inlet area, including a $75 million entertainment complex proposed by a group that includes former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.
The CRDA had planned to use its share of revenue from Revel — 1.25 percent of gambling winnings — to pay for a $50 million bond to buy and clear several blocks. But Revel's struggles led the agency to use a more modest $8.5 million to remake the neighborhood.
Birnbaum, who lives 30 miles inland in Hammonton and has made a living by tuning pianos at the casinos for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others, said he was offered fair market value for his family's house, about $240,000. He said he would leave if he was given a detailed reason on what the city wants to do with the land.
"I was hoping that my parents would see some turnaround and some progress, and now I'm hoping and praying that I'll be the one that sees the turnaround and progress in spite of Revel and in spite of Showboat and (Trump) Plaza, because we've gone through some tough times," he said. "And if it means going through more tough times, so be it."
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