Can Bart Blatstein Really Kickstart Atlantic City?

The Pier Shops failed. Bart Blatstein now owns them. Can he make a splash in the Atlantic Ocean in his first project outside Philadelphia?

Starbucks bathroom, Atlantic City

The most wonderful bathroom view in the world, at a Starbucks in Atlantic City. (Photo | Dan McQuade)

After Bart Blatstein unveiled his plans for the Pier at Caesars in Atlantic City yesterday, I went to the Starbucks to file a story. The Inquirer’s Amy Rosenberg calls it the “nicest Starbucks on the planet,” and it might be. It’s a Starbucks that’s literally on the beach. There are incredible views of the ocean, beach and Atlantic City boardwalk.

Then I went into the bathroom. It was more of the same! The tiny, one-toilet bathroom at the pier has an even better view of the ocean than the actual Starbucks. And yet, here it is, an amazing view completely hidden in the mall.

The weirdest thing about the Pier Shops at Caesars — the pier that will soon become Blatstein’s new Playground development — is that it’s so inward-facing. Sure, it’s a mall — but it’s a mall that overlooks the ocean and aside from the back of the pier and one side of the third floor — and that Starbucks — the pier doesn’t look out onto the ocean. “I’ve never seen a pier like this anywhere in the country,” Blatstein said. He promised to install more windows in the pier, offering gorgeous views overlooking the city.

Windows are a good start. But can Bart Blatstein really kickstart Atlantic City?

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Things were upbeat at the event yesterday. More than upbeat. It was an event with a big-name developer (Blatstein), a respected gaming architect (Paul Steelman) and a host of politicians (too many to list). Of course it was going to be a mutual admiration society.

Blatstein said he’s “never failed” and that The Playground — see more details and renderings here — would be the “greatest success” of his career. He praised Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian as a “superstar.” He doubled over in praise for State Senate president Steve Sweeney. Guardian praised everyone, with extensive remarks about U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo. Steelman compared Blatstein to Steve Wynn. Everyone was in agreement: Bart Blatstein was going to make this dead mall a top tourist attraction.

Blatstein guaranteed it would be Atlantic City’s top tourist attraction. He said it would be the music capital of the East Coast. It would become a music destination — 14 venues are planned — rivaling places like Beale Street in Memphis and Sixth Street in Austin. Everyone was confident this was, in Sweeney’s words, “the beginning of the new Atlantic City.”

“We got knocked down,” Sweeney said. “But as I tell everybody, the best of Atlantic City is still to come. Atlantic City is going to be the top destination, playground — whatever you want to call it — in the world.”

Okay, so it was a bit over the top. But as was pointed out yesterday multiple times, Blatstein has had tremendous success in Philadelphia. He showed a video of his Piazza at Schmidt’s in Northern Liberties, which was in an area Blatstein said his firm “wouldn’t let our female staff walk around without an escort.” Three years ago, Philadelphia called Blatstein “the most creative developer this city has seen in a generation.”

But that was Philadelphia. This is Atlantic City. This is a city where he hasn’t built before, and where most of the headlines are downers: Four casinos closed last year, there is continued legal wrangling over Revel’s sale and some people still think the resort was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. (In February, Politico reported “Hurricane Sandy destroy[ed] a large amount of Atlantic City’s boardwalk”; only a small section slated for demolition was ruined.)

But don’t believe the doomsayers. There are fewer people in the casinos, but Atlantic City’s tourist areas aren’t desolate. I go down to Atlantic City often, and the place is always popping. I was in the Wild Wild West Casino on Valentine’s Day — I’m quite the romantic — and the place was mobbed despite awful weather. All last summer, as the doom of closing casinos crept over the island, the beach and boardwalk were still packed.

And new non-gaming venues have been successful. Revel was crushed by a rockslide of debt. But the HQ Nightclub and HQ Beach Club were so popular the owner tried to keep them open after the casino failed. The mall, despite 50 percent occupancy, still draws some crowds. The Apple Store, naturally, is always mobbed.

The challenge for Blatstein, then, is appealing to a wide variety of customers in the huge space. The shops appear to do that: The one bar, the Monkey Bar, is literally designed as a spot for young people to “pre-game,” per a press release. North Bowl has been very successful in Nolibs, and he’s opening Bart Bowl in Atlantic City. (Three people have suggested to me it should be “Blat Bowl” instead, but that’s a minor quibble.) The 14 music venues must be designed to appeal to wide varieties of musical tastes. It could draw young and young-ish people who like the beach but don’t want to blow their money in casinos.

Blatstein guaranteed success, but he’s working in a new city for the first time — one that can’t seem to catch a break. There’s no real guarantee. But this definitely isn’t a lost cause, or even necessarily a long shot. He seems to understand why the Pier Shops failed (poor design, limited diversity of shops); plus, the economy is better now than it was when the mall opened. He got a great deal on it, too — $2.7 million for a place built for $200 mil — in a city that still attracts a lot of tourists. If his attractions are good, there will be customers.

Will there be enough? We’ll see. Maybe he can start advertising that Starbucks bathroom. I recommend it, at least. You’ll never have a better view while relieving yourself.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.