ATLANTIC CITY — The southern end of Tennessee Avenue is a microcosm of what has happened to the city over the past decade.
Buildings are vacant with paint chipping off their facades, the sidewalks are cracked, and empty lots are overgrown with weeds and littered with garbage.
It still has its staples. The Pic-A-Lilli Pub has seen business pick up tremendously in the past two years, according to manager Kip Russell. Meanwhile, the state Casino Control Commission and Mr. Steak remain in business.
But for the most part, the beach block is in major need of a makeover.
Enter businessmen Mark Callazzo, Evan Sanchez and Zenith Shah, who have a new vision for the struggling street.
Their vision, the Tennessee Avenue Transformation Project, was discussed at last week’s Urban Land Institute seminar and is expected to feature restaurants, bars, live music, shops, crafts and more. Officials see the block as a future place for the popular “pop up” parks seen in Philadelphia and other cities.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian sees it as a “grittier” version of The Walk, the popular shopping district downtown.
The plan is to have the block between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue closed to traffic on weekends in the summer — maybe this summer.
“We’re doing everything we can to have it open this summer,” Guardian said.
“There are a lot of cool places to go out in Atlantic City, but none of them are close together,” said Callazzo, who is CEO of Alpha Funding Solutions and the owner of the Iron Room restaurant in the city’s Chelsea section. “Pre-casinos, this area of the city was a popular place to go. So now we’re trying to re-create some of that and make this a go-to place for visitors.”
In the past, Tennessee Avenue has been the home of popular spots such as the Greater Pittsburgh Bar and Hotel Bolivar.
Now, the businessmen want to get the block populated again. They will start renovations and construction on a coffee shop and bar in vacant buildings they own near Pacific Avenue and will have those businesses open by this summer.
Once they are completed, they hope other businesses will follow suit by opening up more shops along the street.
Eventually, they would also like to start building new structures on the vacant lots.
While the street will be closed off only in the summer, the businesses there would stay open year-round.
“This is going to be done in phases,” said Sanchez, a Pleasantville native and co-founder of Authentic City Partners. “One of the reasons this area of the city is so attractive is because there is not much here.”
Russell said he welcomes more competition around the Pic-A-Lilli because it will draw more people to the area.
“If we were the only bar in Atlantic City, we would be out of business,” he said. “It would also help clean up some of the crime that happens around here, so I am fully supportive of this project.”
Guardian said he can help the project by encouraging other business owners to invest and work to streamline different permit processes.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “One of the things (Callazzo) talked about when he came to me was that you don’t have a natural transition off the Boardwalk. ... You’re going to have a whole block where everyone can go.”
But unlike Carl Icahn and other business tycoons who promised huge investments only to back out later, Sanchez and Callazzo acknowledge their project alone isn’t going to save the city from its financial crisis. They’re trying to prove the city is still worth investing in.
“One of the big problems with Atlantic City is that you have major announcements with no follow-up,” Callazzo said. “We’re not promising the world. We’re doing what we can control.”