ATLANTIC CITY - A year has passed since Mayor Lorenzo Langford asked the public to pinpoint the city's 10 worst eyesores. Physical changes at most of the sites are hard to spot or nonexistent, but there has been plenty of action behind the scenes.
Changes to city law and an infusion of demolition funding from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority are combining to create pressure on land owners who neglect their properties.
"This is going to make things go a lot quicker," Thomas Meehan, the CRDA's director of development, said of the additional $1 million the agency is dedicating to clearing the city's rundown buildings as it expands its demolition program from the South Inlet to the entire resort. The CRDA's board approved the funding, which will be used to reimburse the city for its demolition costs, on April 19.
The CRDA's committment to tearing down unsightly structures in Atlantic City has finally led to erasing the first eyesore on the mayor's latest list: the back of Garden Pier.
The city demolished the decayed piling, which were unsafe and no longer in use, late last month as part of a separate funding deal involving the CRDA and Revel Entertainment Group, a casino company that plans to give the rest of the pier a $1 million facelift.
But the other nine properties on the list still have many obstacles ahead of them.
What the mayor's eyesore list has truly done is illustrate just how stubborn a problem a dilapidated building can be and how difficult it is to either get it fixed or tear it down.
Langford issued his first list of eyesores in 2003, during his first term in office. Many of the same properties - still standing, still ugly - made repeat appearances on his second list seven years later.
This time around, the city has first taken aim not at the properties but at the red tape that prevents officials from going after a property. As a result, owners that made the Top 10 lists in 2003 and 2010 are feeling more heat than ever.
A good sign
Last year, City Council amended an ordinance to allow local government to start demolition proceedings six months after a property has been declared vacant. Since then, the city has targeted 30 properties for demolition, holding formal hearings on nine of them. Two of the buildings have been demolished, one by the city and one by the property owner. The city recently received bids for demolition of two other properties.
Two of the properties targeted are the old Flanders Hotel and the old Knights of Columbus Hotel, a pair of abandoned buildings on the same block that hold the top two spots on both of Langford's eyesores lists.
Demolition hearings have been held and orders issued at both properties. County documents show owners of the old Flanders Hotel sold the building to the New York-based Claremont Hotel Inc. for $287,500. The city assessed the property this year at $840,100.
Claremont representatives are injecting about $1 million into restoring the building into an active hotel and have been working to get the business operational by July.
Although Wally Shields, a city construction official, said he does not expect the property to be open this year, construction workers and painters were active throughout each of the hotel's eight floors Tuesday. There already was some furniture and carpeting in place in the lobby and the second floor.
"It looked like a war zone when we came in," said Debbie Harris, a consultant to Claremont Hotel Inc.
The refurbished Flanders Hotel, which likely will be called the Claremont Hotel, will feature 85 rooms and a restored grand ballroom, according to Perry Chopra, principal owner of Claremont Hotel Inc. He added that workers likely will continue to do cosmetic work on the building for another six months after opening.
Chopra said his committment to the property might not be his last. He has been looking to restore some of the city's old rundown buildings, and said he is using the eyesore list as his guide.
"I've been focusing on the gaming markets because I think they will turn around eventually," he said, adding that he recently purchased another property in Las Vegas. "For me, personally, the key issue is to get these up and going by employing the unemployed. We've found a lot of great workers in Atlantic City."
Chopra said he offered the owners of the old Knights of Columbus Hotel $500,000 but they returned with an asking price of $2 million.
Meanwhile, the city ordered the hotel's owners to improve the property to comply with city code by April 26. Shields said the principal owner, Nedjatollah J. Sakhai, of Old Westbury, N.Y., recently submitted plans to bring the property into compliance with hopes of obtaining new permits. However, Shields said property owners tend to use permits as a way to delay demolition.
"People will get a permit and then just sit on the permit and the (demolition effort) just disappears," Shields said. "That used to be the case around here, but not any more. That's not going to work. It'd be a shame to see that kind of building go, but these people have had plenty of time get in compliance."
But not all of the properties on the mayor's list are seeing the same progress, particularly the ones that might seem to be the easiest to improve.
Two of the 10 eyesores targeted last year are owned by the city. Separate Boardwalk pavilions - one at Roosevelt Place, the other at Maine Avenue - have been in terrible condition for years. The Roosevelt Place pavilion is a withered skeleton of its former self. The Maine Avenue structure, made of concrete, has been damaged severely by storms and now blends in with the lifted Boardwalk planks and fallen lampposts that make up much of the South Inlet Boardwalk.
These structures seemed to be the administration's easiest targets, both because there were no private owners to contend with and a state agency was prepared to assist.
The CRDA approved funding to replace the Roosevelt Place pavilion in August. However, concern about its underpinnings delayed the project while the city's engineer investigated. More than eight months later, CRDA officials are still talking about doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the site should be repaired or demolished and rebuilt.
"We have the funds to do it. We can take it out," Meehan said. "There's just a lot of properties to consider."
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