New Jersey is doubling down on a bad bet: It wants to take a man’s family home to try to boost a once-bankrupt casino.
A quaint brick walk-up near the Atlantic City boardwalk has been with Charlie Birnbaum and his parents for more than four decades. But the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is trying to seize this house using the power of eminent domain, the government’s ability to take private property for a “public use.” Condemnation should not be used lightly and only as a last resort. Neither is true for Charlie’s case (as seen in the video below).
New Jersey is just one of a handful of states that allows authorizing eminent domain to benefit casinos. That is far removed from a genuine public use, like a highway or a school. CRDA wants to take Charlie’s family home (as well as 61 other units) for a “mixed-use development” to complement Revel, the latest casino built in Atlantic City.
Yet just last year Revel emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is only the latest fiasco in its troubled history. After construction began in 2007, the recession soon hit. Morgan Stanley MS +0.93%, the project’s original investor, later pulled out, swallowing an almost billion-dollar loss. Construction stalled for nearly a year.
The casino only opened in 2012 after it received $261 million in tax breaks from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. With this largesse, Revel was branded “The Casino the State Saved” by The New York Times. That was premature. Less than a year after it opened, the $2.4 billion resort filed for bankruptcy.
In a stark reversal of fortune, Revel’s value plummeted to $450 million in March 2013. One union estimates the casino now has a valuation of $25 to $73 million. Revel has already destroyed $2 billion in value. Charlie’s family home shouldn’t be next.
Incredibly, CRDA hasn’t offered any plans for what it would actually build with Charlie’s property. Minutes from a CRDA public meeting in January 2013 only noted that the properties would be “assemble[d] for future redevelopment and possible interim public purpose uses.”
Empty words didn’t sit well with Charlie. “At one of the public meetings, I asked, ‘Well, you’re taking my property. What are you going to do with it?’” he recalled. “And the answer was. ‘We don’t know yet.’”
Nor is his home actually needed for whatever CRDA decides to build. According to an eminent domain plan by the Authority, Charlie’s property is at the very far end of the plan. Right outside his window sits a block composed almost entirely of vacant lots. CRDA could easily proceed with whatever redevelopment plan it envisions without demolishing the Birnbaum home.
Charlie’s house is not just a collection of bricks and mortar. It represents decades of memories and close ties to his family. Survivors of the Holocaust, who met in the Polish woods while hiding from the Nazis, his parents came to America after the war. The two were supportive of Charlie and his brother, who were child prodigy pianists. When Charlie was 13, he soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Two years later, he performed in an audition judged by Leonard Bernstein. Over the years, Charlie played at recitals all around the world and later mulled becoming a music professor. But performing in such a competitive field took its toll.
When the casinos started to open in Atlantic City, Charlie was offered a job tuning pianos. His parents had been living on Oriental Avenue, just a few blocks away from the Boardwalk, since 1969. This job let Charlie continue his passion for piano. He even tuned for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Crucially, it also allowed Charlie to visit his family every day. For years, he would care for his parents between tuning pianos. His father passed away in 1987. Eleven years later, his mother was murdered in the home. A thug broke into the house and viciously beat his mother and her caretaker to death. She was 86. Charlie lost his mother. Her killer got a VCR.
Spiritually and literally, he cleansed the house after her murder. Charlie found solace in restoring the living room and through his playing. “And that’s why this property has meant so much. It was my therapy,” he said.
The Institute for Justice (IJ) is fighting for Charlie’s home. Eminent domain must not be used for private gain. Yesterday, IJ held a press conference before Charlie and his attorneys appeared in court to challenge CRDA’s condemnation. Through activism and litigation, IJ has saved over 16,000 homes and businesses from the abuse of eminent domain, including in Atlantic City.
Back in 1998, IJ stopped Vera Coking’s house from being taken, destroyed and turned into a limousine parking lot for a casino owned by Donald Trump. CRDA wanted to seize Vera’s home, which she had lived in for 37 years, as well as two small businesses. But in a landmark ruling for property rights, a New Jersey Superior Court judge decried those condemnations as “giving Trump a blank check.” That case has created an important precedent to save Charlie’s home from condemnation.
Charlie is determined to stay. “For me it’s not about the money,” he said. “The money doesn’t replace the life I’ve had and what this place represents to me and my family. You can’t equate that with an offer. And I don’t know how to get that across to the powers that be, but I’ll try.”
One thought on “Elderly Atlantic City Icon Could Lose His Family Home Of 45 Years To Benefit A Bankrupt Casino”
“But the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is trying to seize this house using the power of eminent domain, the government’s ability to take private property for a “public use.””
This is such Communism, it’s not even funny. This is exactly what they are doing with my parent’s in law in China, people. They are forcing them to move out in order for the corporations/government to build a park. The only difference is that the Chinese government is giving them (bribing them) with a slightly better house if they move willingly. Not sure if they even gave this guy Charlie Birnbaum here in this article that option. Not like it matters anyways because regardless, this whole Communist blackmail thing is illegal and treasonous in the U.S., as the land belongs to We the People NOT to the government or corporations. These bastards at this casino ought to be put in prison or hanged.