ATLANTIC CITY - Views from the old Garwood Mills site in the Northeast Inlet can be beautiful - just don't look down.
One might be distracted by the sight of gulls flying low along the Atlantic Ocean by the strewn garbage and weeds invading the property. The site's unfortunate condition is a result of years of politics and unfulfilled pledges.
Now, there are new promises being made at this famously vacant site, and developers say there is reason to be confident again about the parcel's future - just don't look back.
The city's past dealings with the site could turn anyone into a skeptic. Since the old Garwood Mills department store shut down in 1976, shortsighted deals, incapable developers and bribery schemes have highlighted more than 30 years of inactivity at the 41.5-acre property.
But a subsidiary of Kushner Cos., in a joint venture with Procida Realty, insists the stagnant site could see signs of life within a year to 18 months. That is when construction on a new housing development is projected to start.
"There's nothing glaring that stands out to us," Gordon Gemma, director of Kushner Cos., said of potential obstacles.
But Kushner has had trouble keeping its word. The company's original proposal would have delivered a $175 million, 462-unit condominium complex. It also did not include Procida. However, resident complaints about obstructed views, coupled with a sagging economy, led the group to bring on a partner and downscale the property to a 102-home neighborhood, consisting of only low-rise buildings.
The changes frustrated city officials in 2008. Former Mayor Scott Evans' administration moved to strip the land from Kushner for breaching the redevelopment agreement it made when it bought the land from the city in 2005.
To many, it was history repeating itself. The city had previously sold the Garwood Mills site in January 1990 for $12.5 million in a deal designed to ease budget concerns. But the buyer, Philadelphia developer Jacques Ferber, missed multiple deadlines, and the property eventually reverted to city control.
However, this time a change in political power equaled a change in the development's outlook. Since Mayor Lorenzo Langford took office in November 2008, the city attorney rallying to reacquire the property was fired and the resort's new deputy solicitor, Irving Jacoby, began agreeing with legal arguments to keep Kushner as the property's owner.
The way Kushner originally obtained the property also has been questioned.
Former City Council President Craig Callaway and Councilmen Gibb Jones and Ramon Rosario all accepted money in exchange for access to the site. The same FBI probe that sent those officials to prison also ensnared Edward DiNicolantonio, who worked as a consultant for Kushner and made unspecified cash payments to Callaway for his support of the company at Garwood Mills.
Kushner Cos. has denied any wrongdoing and was never accused by authorities.
Councilman Bruce Ward, who represents residents in the Northeast Inlet, said there is one big reason to be more confident in the new plan: Procida Realty. The company has established a presence in the resort, including developing in the inlet and working in conjunction with the city's federally funded Hope VI program.
"They're here in Atlantic City," Ward said. "They have a track record."
The new project still must undergo preliminary and final site plan approval through the city and must pass environmental reviews by the state.
The developers say they do not foresee any problems. They are comfortable looking toward a promising future, not a gloomy past.
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