How Atlantic City’s Revel Casino Lost The Urban Planning Gamble

Stricken casino Revel wasn’t just a place to lose your savings; it was a multibillion dollar bet to redefine a dying city.

Even in its final moments, Revel couldn't catch a break: Atlantic City, New Jersey's ill-fated, multibillion dollar development project was evacuated at 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning by a fire alarm, just hours before shutting its doors after two years of unrelenting financial turmoil.

It hasn't been an easy year for Atlantic City, either. The struggling gambling destination entered 2014 with 12 casinos, but will leave the year with only eight. Revel's closing, though, represents something different than the shutterings of its more traditional neighbors, casinos Showboat Atlantic City and Trump Plaza, in the past week. Revel, as reported by Fast Company in 2012, was placing a bigger--and more expensive--bet on the boardwalk: It was to be a resort with a diminished focus on gambling, and a beacon of youth and luxury that would contrast with the Atlantic City of old.

Revel subtracted essential pieces from the Atlantic City casino equation: It downplayed gaming in its branding, it banned smoking, it didn't have a buffet. It pledged to revitalize the northernmost tip of Atlantic City's slumping boardwalk by drawing droves of non-gambling types with its non-traditional offerings (for Atlantic City) like a three-day Surf Academy, "Yoga for Foodies" classes, and 12 restaurants featuring celebrity chefs.

As Fast Company's Danielle Sacks wrote in 2012:

"We probably have 40% more nongaming amenities than anybody in this market," says [Revel CEO Kevin] DeSanctis. Guests arriving at Revel drive right up to the water, making it clear they've arrived at the beach, not a gaming destination. They can then bypass the casino entirely by going to the lobby located on the hotel's fourth floor, which doubles as an opportunity to gaze at the ocean or wander through the SkyGarden. "You usually have to step over slot machines to get to hotel reception," says Bernardo Fort-Brescia, founding principal of Arquitectonica, one of the 65 firms that helped design the 6.2-million-square-foot resort. "Here, we want you to feel like you left behind the city."

To create this resort-like experience, Revel had to build. The cultural offerings would be augmented by the development of over 100 acres of nearby land, South Inlet, into apartments, boutiques, and restaurants--a mini community, where gambling was only one piece of a much larger puzzle. In an unpublished interview with Sacks from 2012, DeSanctis detailed just one aspect of this investment: employee housing.

"We’ll have a lot of folks working for us and there’s not great housing, so we’ve worked with some folks in Boston to discuss why wouldn’t we want some of our workforce to live close to Revel, three blocks from the beach," DeSanctis told Sacks. "You have a gym and dining facilities and cool lifestyle. If you’re living there you need dry cleaners and pizza place, so you naturally create a micro community and that fills two-three blocks."

Photo: Flickr user Kevin Jarrett

But like any plan to create a South Beach-like community in south Jersey, it didn't quite seem like it could work. And it didn't. This timeline of Revel's short lifetime highlights the constant dysfunction of DeSanctis's endeavor--from Morgan Stanley's early exit from the project (which cost the bank an estimated $1 billion), to being branded "a melting ice cube" by one of its own lawyers in bankruptcy court.

Now, the land surrounding Revel sits much the same that it did two years ago, though property disputes remain, and the casino stands as a monument to what Atlantic City could have been, maybe, had the chips fallen in the right place. Turning back to Sacks's feature, maybe the writing was on the wall:

"I look at it," he says, "as enlightened self-interest." Just like any gambler trying to gain an edge over the house.

[Photo: Flickr user Shawn Perez]

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