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Al fresco in A.C.: Why some want to see a rise in outdoor seating

ATLANTIC CITY — It’s quiet outside the Pic-A-Lilli Pub on a recent spring day. The party is happening inside the 24-hour bar, with the stools filled and music playing in the background.

But owner Don Russell wants to bring the soiree outside.

More specifically, onto the blacktop parking lot adjacent to the Tennessee Avenue watering hole, where he envisions a 25-foot by 35-foot deck housing an outdoor bar and tables for patrons. He said he plans to apply for permits soon and have the project completed by the end of the summer.

“I want to keep up with everyone else,” Russell said.

Outdoor eating, a hallmark in most major U.S. cities, is scant in areas of Atlantic City off the Boardwalk. But it’s exploded in neighboring shore towns only a few miles to the south. In Ocean City, Ventnor and Margate, nearly every eatery offers sidewalk seating, with scores of breakfast goers enjoying pancakes and eggs on the pavement on sunny mornings.

It’s not Paris, but some want the European-style open-air dining to catch on in the resort, too. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is recommending changes to its Master Plan that would break down at least one barrier for restaurants wanting to expand outside.

A crop of new businesses on South Tennessee Avenue have taken the lead. They say extra sidewalk foot traffic can enhance the vibrancy and perception of safety in neighborhoods.

Low walkability and a need for social services might be stopping more businesses from setting up shop outside in Atlantic City, said Michael Brennan, owner of Cardinal Bistro, a Ventnor restaurant that’s moving to the resort next year.

But that’s exactly why he wants his eatery’s new (undisclosed) location to have an outdoor element.

“If you’re sitting outdoors and eating and someone comes up asking for spare change, that’s a problem,” he said. “But that’s the challenge we’re going to take on.”

Its new location will include an outdoor dining area attached to the main building. Chefs will grow herbs and plants in the space as well. It will be modeled after high-end restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, he said, where open-air dining isn’t just plastic chairs and picnic tables.

Since launching Cardinal Bistro in 2016, Brennan says, he’s learned that entire business districts can benefit from having restaurants with outdoor seating. Those that offer it are typically more mindful of their outward appearance, he said, and that in turn helps beautify streets.

“We have to maintain and take care of our façade to a certain level. We’re out there sweeping the sidewalks, power washing and collecting all the cigarette butts,” he said. “It’s a business, but at the same time, you’re here to serve the community.”

A University of Utah planning scholar found in a 2015 study that making a place memorable can increase pedestrian activity, with al fresco dining being one way to do that. That, in turn, puts more “eyes on the street” and deters crime.

And in Atlantic City, some officials are taking note.

In its latest Master Plan, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority wants to scrap a zoning regulation requiring restaurants to have more indoor seating than outdoor. The change was proposed in part because Landshark Bar and Grill couldn’t expand its beach bar without a variance.

But an unintended consequence would be getting more people with their eyes outside as a check on crime, said Lance Landgraf, the authority’s planning and development director.

“If someone is interested in putting tables outside, they’re gonna have their waiter or waitress staff out there,” Landgraf said. “Outside, they can see things that are going on.”

Other businesses simply want day-trippers to enjoy one of Atlantic City’s greatest assets: the ocean breeze.

That was the idea behind the patio attached to the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, said Jamie Hoagland, marketing director for the restaurant and bar.

When the weather is warm, about 200 people can eat and drink in a secluded, grassy area next to the hall that’s enclosed by a wooden fence and tall bamboo plants.

“We’re right off the Boardwalk, so you can hear the ocean from the patio,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

Stockton class uses 'Game of Thrones' to teach about history, writing and film

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Jon Snow may not be a historical figure, but students at Stockton University are learning from his and other characters’ experiences on “Game of Thrones” to gain insight into medieval history.

“It’s the most popular cable TV series ever, students are really into it,” said Professor Geoffrey Gust. “So it’s a class where students get an interesting kind of grounding in history — hopefully — film studies, and then ultimately we point them in the direction of a much more in-depth and intriguing perspective of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

“Games of Thrones in Premodern Literature and Film” is in its final year at the college as the megapopular HBO series “Game of Thrones” wraps up its final season this spring. It is a general studies course that delves into themes such as gender and sexuality, politics, religion and violence.

Nicole Fox, 18, of Upper Township, is a self-proclaimed “‘Game of Thrones’ nerd” who began watching the show last year and is in the midst of reading the books now.

Fox said she loves coming to class and getting to hear everyone else’s thoughts and theories on the show and books.

“It really brings the show to a huge world,” she said.

Gust developed the class about five years ago when the “Game of Thrones” series had really taken off. He was able to begin offering it to students three years ago, but said he doesn’t plan to offer it again next year after the series ends.

While the name of the class was probably a great marketing tool, the students learn about much more than about the HBO series or books by George R.R. Martin. It offers students lessons on history, film and writing.

“Martin himself was a history student in college,” Gust said. “And the show is basically inspired by the English War of the Roses, but he also draws on other historical characters motifs ideas on the one hand. But then he interweaves those with fantasy.”

On Thursday, experts in medieval fighting were on hand and in costume to present to the class on medieval weaponry. The re-enactors were part of the Knights of Crossford, a combat fight team affiliated with the New Jersey Renaissance Faire.

They brought with them several of the weapons that are used in the series, including an execution sword similar to Ned Stark’s greatsword Ice, a smallsword like Arya’s Needle, and a war hammer like the one used by King Robert Baratheon.

The Knights team talked about how the weapons were used and developed throughout history. Terri McIntyre, stage combat instructor for the Knights of Crossford, lauded the “Game of Thrones” series for the historical accuracy of the “Battle of the Bastards” in season 7 and the use of a shield wall.

“The shield wall is so effective, it’s still in use today — riot police,” she told the class.

The class had a chance to ask questions and hold the weapons. Later in the day, they would participate in a Medieval Marketplace on campus with projects they created.

Student Ki Stetser, 19, of the Blackwood section of Gloucester Township, signed up for the class on a whim because of a love for literature, although she had never seen “Game of Thrones” prior to this semester. She said she loves the idea of using pop culture to teach about history.

“I feel like I’m actually learning something I’m interested in,” Stetser said.

Gust said he sees other opportunities for similar classes as the spinoff series to “Game of Thrones” debuts and additional movies related to “Lord of the Rings” are released.

Farmers, experts predict a growing season in full bloom this spring

The combination of a record wet 2018, a wetter than average winter and a dry patch in March lead many to believe South Jersey will sprout strongly when growing season arrives.

“The good news is that we’ve had multiple months with above average precipitation. For any soils that can hold the water for a while, we’re in good shape, the groundwater is in good shape,” said Dave Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and distinguished professor at Rutgers University.

The state averaged 64.79 inches of precipitation in 2018, the highest since records were first kept in 1895. Rain and snow slopped the soil after the growing season ended. November was the wettest on record at Atlantic City International Airport. The period from December through February was the ninth wettest meteorological winter at the airport.

While this could have set up too wet of a start, March saw slightly lower than average precipitation, the perfect balance needed to get a garden going.

Growing season begins with the last frost and freeze, typically late March to mid-April in South Jersey, and ends with the first frost or freeze, typically late October to early November.

Tap to read Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast

“The rain last year was terrible for yields, and attempting to plant and harvest in wet conditions can be very detrimental to fields,” said Alex Sheppard, production manager of Sheppard Farms in Lawrence Township, Cumberland County. “The conditions in December through February held us back a little, but the recent dry weather has more than made up for it. The conditions have made for good planting.”

“We’re all pretty optimistic for this year. The temperatures weren’t crazy. We didn’t have blueberry bushes growing early. All of the buds held tight,” said Marc Carpenter of Joseph J. White Farm in Browns Mills, Burlington County.

Drought has not stricken South Jersey since April 2017, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drought Monitor. No further drought is expected in the near future.

“The water’s not been in excess where you can’t get by on hand to start planting. Most of the spots you can still work a small area by hand, especially if they’re using raised bed gardens,” said Richard VanVranken, Atlantic County agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

Cool-season plants, such as lettuce, cabbage and broccoli, are good to plant now, according to the extension, which provides agricultural support.

Free resources are available from the extension to New Jersey residents, whether they are a first-time home gardener or a seasoned veteran of the hoe and shovel.

“There are 21 county offices across the state. Each has agricultural support,” VanVranken said.

Master gardners are trained for 20 weeks in Atlantic County through the extension. Once the session is complete, they can be at the service of anyone.

VanVranken said anyone can create their own mini greenhouse by cutting open a plastic water jug or juice container and putting it over a plant in the soil. For nights where temperatures are expected to dip near freezing, leave the cap on the plant. This allows outgoing heat, or radiation, from the ground to stay inside the container, preventing the plant from being exposed to the cold air.

During the day, take the cap off, especially on sunny days, when the strong sun can heat the surface of the ground quickly. This will allow the air to mix and vent around the plant.

Other tips include keeping plants from dying during the transition month of April. The last 32-degree freeze, on average, ranges from late March to early April for much of Cape May County and lands east of the Garden State Parkway to late April for the rest of the region.

However, plants such as cabbage and broccoli can still be grown. At the cooperative extension, they’re grown until the end of May or early June.

“They’re run until the end of May or early June,” said Belinda Chester, Rutgers Master Gardener Program coordinator of the Cooperative Extension.

“They work the helpline and events across the county. ... You can call our office (609-625-0056), and a Master Gardener will be there to answer,” Chester said.

More advanced tips, such as for growing baby lettuce, are offered as well.

“We can take it (the potted lettuce) apart and plant multiple plants, as long as we don’t rip the fruit off of each one. ... Or you can plant multiple ones together and then, in a few weeks, come back to eat as baby lettuces,” VanVranken said.

Tap to read Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast

Vacant Atlantic City home damaged by fire slated for demolition

Known for housing drifters and concealing drug activity, the Atlantic City home at 21 N. Florida Ave. that caught fire this month was already a property the city had flagged and planned to demolish more than a month ago.

Now, the charred structure where two firefighters were injured — one on the roof and another on the stairs — is slated for demolition this week.

“Obviously, the fire took this to another level,” said Dale Finch, director of the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections. “It definitely has been an eyesore in Ducktown that we need to get down, so this really expedited that process for us.”

While the April 11 fire, which is under investigation, has fast-tracked the demolition, some city and neighborhood officials are pushing for the process overall to move faster.

The property on North Florida was one among 10 the city discussed at a public hearing March 11. Property owners received notices after the city investigated the properties and ruled they were unoccupied, unsafe, unsanitary, unfit for human habitation or posed a danger to the health and safety of people nearby.

Aziz Sahlil, a 66-year-old man from Philadelphia who owns the property, suffers from severe health issues that have prevented him from visiting the property in more than two years.

He said he had plans for the home, but with his health issues it has become more difficult for him to deal with the building.

The home, which had sat on the market for more than six months, was under contract to be sold, but the city decided at the hearing it would proceed with the demolition anyway.

Sahlil and others were given 30 days’ notice after the decision. After that, bids would go out to construction companies, then the lowest bidders would need to get permissions from the city. Once permits were approved, demolitions could start.

The costs for the demolitions will be billed in the form of a lien against the property.

“It’s not like you walk in day one and tear a building down. There’s a whole process,” Finch said. “You have to make sure that everyone who has an interest in the property is aware, and we encourage those people to take action on their own. If they don’t, then unfortunately we have to step in.”

But Finch said there is a long list of properties, and the demolitions require funding.

“I wish we could have torn it down quicker, obviously, but as the administration will tell you, they are constrained by finances,” said Kaleem Shabaaz, councilman of the 3rd Ward, where the vacant home sits. “If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it and it would be done within the week.”

Firefighters also identify vacant buildings to prepare for hazards, such as neglected structural problems and exposed needles that would make searches more dangerous, said John Varallo, president of the city’s firefighter union.

Varallo also is concerned with another vacant building in Ducktown — one of the department’s fire stations, closed since January due to mold and roof issues.

“The properties in that neighborhood are extremely close together,” he said, explaining a fire can spread faster between homes without an immediate response, such as could be provided if the fire station were open and staffed.

The house at 21 N. Florida is not the first troubled property in Ducktown, and the Ducktown Neighborhood Association has created a plan that pinpoints abandoned properties, according to consultant Jim Rutala. They also plan to start their own nonprofit to fund rehabilitation and demolition projects.

“Abandoned properties are like a cancer in a neighborhood,” Rutala said. “There’s negative impact on all the properties surrounding it, so it’s important to address abandoned properties first.”