ATLANTIC CITY — When Sara Bisher moved to a Tennessee Avenue inn on one of the city’s struggling blocks, she didn’t plan to stay there long.
It was a temporary fix after she lost her job and housing eight months ago.
The area is barren, the 36-year-old said, apart from a group of drug dealers and users who often gather on a nearby corner. Strip clubs, old motels and parking lots lined with overgrown weeds dot the three blocks long considered a “dead zone.”
And even with a slew of trendy, new stores popping up, Bisher is doubtful that will change. Low foot traffic and petty crime leaves her skeptical.
“I don’t think people are gonna want to come down here,” said Bisher as she carried her groceries inside the Memphis Belle Inn, located next to a new beer hall set to open in November.
A group of developers and business owners is looking to transform three blocks perpendicular to the Boardwalk into a walkable, millennial playground: South Tennessee Avenue, South New York Avenue and South St. James Place. It’s dubbed the “Orange Loop,” after the orange properties on the Monopoly board.
Kip Russell, future general manager of the soon-to-open Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, knows the project is risky, and he is cautiously optimistic.
Previously manager of Pic-a-Lilli Pub a few doors down, Russell has seen his share of bars and restaurants come and go. An arcade bar called Perfectly Innocent Amusement Co. opened in 2014, but closed within a year.
“I’m very dubious,” he said. “But in a short time, I’ve seen the block change dramatically. I think the rewards are tremendous.”
The new beer hall will be the fourth business opening on the small stretch in the past year, beside a trendy coffee shop, a yoga studio and a chocolate bar. Another new business is in the works.
A music venue space called Rhythm and Spirits will be opening in the first six months of 2019 at the site of former Korean restaurant Il Bon Gi, said businessman Mark Callazzo. Callazzo, CEO of Alpha Funding Solutions LLC and owner of the Iron Room, has bought about 10 properties along Tennessee Avenue and invested more than $2 million.
Developers have long eyed the land, part of which used to be a thriving downtown stretch called “Snake Alley” in the 1970s. Speculative investors bought up many of the properties in the 1980s thinking the casino industry would boom.
But by 2008, officials had designated the three blocks as “areas in need of redevelopment.”
Properties there had among the lowest median sales prices in Atlantic City despite being within walking distance of the Boardwalk, said former Planning Director Elizabeth Terenik.
“It was sort of an anomaly,” said Terenik, now business administrator for Middle Township.
But Terenik saw promise in the bleak blocks.
In 2015, she asked Rutgers University to come up with a plan for a walkable hub between South Carolina Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Directly in the center of Rutgers’ blueprints was South Tennessee, South St. James, and South New York.
Adjunct Professor Fred Heyer led a small group of graduate students, who mapped out the streets, met with stakeholders and researched crime data. The result was a 52-page report given to city officials that outlined routes to revitalization, as well as barriers.
A perception of crime, excess surface parking, boarded-up buildings and “sexually-oriented businesses” could impede development there, according to the Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy study that also found a staggering 58 percent of the area was asphalt.
The area, Heyer found, was zoned to include large-scale, casino-like developments, but was left stagnant for decades once the city’s gaming industry lost its edge and more people began migrating to the suburbs. Few watchful eyes made the area ripe for drug users and prostitution, Heyer said, though violent crime is rare.
Since May, there have been more than 140 police calls for drunkenness, fights, break-ins, thefts, overdoses, noise complaints, general trouble or “suspicious persons” with drugs or weapons on Tennessee Avenue.
Officers often receive calls about drug activity along the three blocks, said police Sgt. Kevin Fair, but assaults and robberies are uncommon. Other quality-of-life issues are frequent, he said, such as drinking or sleeping in public and aggressive begging.
“People living in that area don’t seem to believe in it the same way the developers do,” Heyer said. “It looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.”
On South New York Avenue, Asbury Park developer Pat Fasano will submit site plans in November for a shipping container hotel with an outdoor food court and summer stage and multiple mixed-use commercial buildings.
In the past year, he has bought 25 lots from property owners John Schultz and Gary Hill on South St. James Place.
“We want to build a small downtown,” Fasano said.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the Tourism District where Tennessee Avenue is located, has tried to stimulate growth there.
Last year, the state agency tweaked its outdated zoning ordinances in place since 1978, said CRDA Planning and Development Director Lance Landgraf. Pop-up shops, outdoor cafes and craft breweries are now allowed.
Some hurdles to opening a small business have also been erased, Landgraf said. The CRDA recently streamlined its application process and began granting expedited “over-the-counter” permits and site plan approval waivers.
“We want to make it easier for small businesses to get operating,” he said. “We want there to be more opportunities beyond casinos.”