ATLANTIC CITY — Carl Icahn has done what Donald Trump and Bob Guccione could not.
The billionaire investor and casino mogul has emerged as the mystery buyer for one of the most storied properties in Atlantic City.
Real estate records show that Icahn subsidiary IEH Investments LLC paid $583,000 to acquire an old boarding home owned by the family of longtime Trump and Guccione nemesis Vera Coking.
Coking, an elderly widow, made headlines for decades in her legendary fight to keep Guccione and then Trump from snatching her property at 127 S. Columbia Place for their casino projects.
Guccione and Trump could never meet her asking price. In some circles, that made Coking an obstructionist, while others celebrated her tenacity in holding off two powerful businessmen who usually got what they wanted.
But don’t expect the Coking house to remain standing for much longer under Icahn’s ownership. Construction crews are removing asbestos from the three-story structure in advance of its demolition. Already, many of the windows are gone. The exterior has been wrenched off the house’s ocean side, giving it a battered appearance.
Coking’s property has stood in the shadow of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino for decades. Now, both the house and the casino are empty, giving Columbia Place a ghost-town atmosphere.
The financially troubled Trump Plaza closed on Sept. 16, one of four casinos to shut down this year amid Atlantic City’s economic crisis. The bankrupt Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. owns Trump Plaza, but Icahn controls the company’s debt, putting him in position to possibly seize the casino. Icahn has also been trying to grab control of the ailing Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, which has announced it will close down on Dec. 12.
Icahn is one of the country’s wealthiest people, with an estimated net worth of $25.7 billion. Among his holdings are the Tropicana Entertainment Inc. casinos nationwide, including the flagship Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City.
In buying the old Coking home, Icahn controls a prime piece of real estate only a half-block from the Boardwalk. If Icahn is also able to take ownership of Trump Plaza, he will be able to avoid the problems that bedeviled Donald Trump and Guccione in their failed attempts to buy out Coking across the street.
For now, Icahn is not revealing any plans he may have for the property. His attorney declined comment Monday. A message left at Icahn’s New York office was not returned.
Coking’s home was auctioned off in August. However, the buyer’s identity was not disclosed at that time. Real estate records confirm that IEH Investments, a wholly owned subsidiary of Icahn Enterprises LP, acquired the property.
Nate Chait, Coking’s Atlantic City real estate broker, speculated that Icahn could capitalize on any redevelopment plans for the area surrounding Trump Plaza. A governor’s advisory commission that is studying ways to revitalize Atlantic City has discussed the possibility of demolishing Trump Plaza to create room for an expansion of The Walk, the city’s popular shopping and entertainment district. Now concentrated at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, The Walk could be extended to the Boardwalk if Trump Plaza were no longer in the way.
Chait said the demolition of the old Coking home, followed by the possible razing of Trump Plaza, appears to be the first step in carrying out those redevelopment plans.
“From what I heard, it would be demolished and incorporated into the extension of The Walk,” he said. “They’ve talked about making it more of an entertainment area. I don’t think it’s going to be a casino again.”
For years, Donald Trump had wanted to acquire the Coking home to clear out the surrounding block for Trump Plaza’s expansion. In 1998, the property was the battleground for a high-profile eminent domain case pitting Trump’s casino company and a state development agency against Coking. A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled against Trump, saying that his attempts to use the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to seize Coking’s home for casino expansion were illegal.
The Trump battle evoked memories of a headline-grabbing fight years earlier between Coking and another celebrity businessman, Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Coking refused Guccione's reported $1 million offer for her house in the 1970s, so he began building the steel superstructure of the proposed Penthouse casino around her.
Guccione ran out of money for his project and halted construction in 1980, but the rusting steel frame of the half-completed casino surrounded Coking’s home. Finally, the old Penthouse hulk was torn down by Trump in 1993 after he bought the Guccione property for Trump Plaza’s expansion.
Coking and her husband Raymond, an engineer who died in 1967, bought the house in the 1960s for $20,000. Before the arrival of casino gambling in 1978 dramatically changed the city’s landscape, the Coking house was part of a cluster of homes and small businesses in the Columbia Place neighborhood.
Coking now lives in a retirement home in California, near her family. Chait said the sale of the old Coking home has finally brought all of the controversy to an end for the family.
“They’re private people. They wanted closure,” he said. “They just got tired of the games. They wanted to put it behind them and move on.”
The $583,000 sale price was well below the house’s nearly $5 million listing price in 2011. By the time the auction came up last August, the asking price had fallen to $995,000.
“In hindsight, you always want more. But I think they’re happy to move on,” Chait said of the Coking family.
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