In AC who gets the house: Piano prodigy or the state?

Charlie Birnbaum on the roof of the house his parents bought at 311 Oriental Ave., overlooking the Revel casino. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority wants to seize the house for future development.
Charlie Birnbaum on the roof of the house his parents bought at 311 Oriental Ave., overlooking the Revel casino. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority wants to seize the house for future development. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 22, 2014

It was an Atlantic City plot as familiar as a rerun on Turner Classic Movies: Homeowner vows to save house against the forces of eminent domain, played out in the shadow of a casino.

It has been playing for the better part of two decades in this troubled seaside resort, since Vera Coking famously stood up to Donald Trump.

But this latest version has impeccable and elegant casting. On Tuesday morning, homeowner and onetime piano prodigy turned piano tuner Charlie Birnbaum, 67, the son of Holocaust survivors, found so many ways to show just how much his three-story brick walkup building at 311 Oriental Ave., on the back side of Revel Casino Resort, means to him.

He held a news conference with anti-eminent domain lawyers from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice. He watched an afternoon court battle against the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, joined by tenants from two nearby housing developments also being condemned by the CRDA.

And he played the Chopin Aeolian Harp ├ętude in the parlor of the home, just a few blocks from the inlet, a block from the ocean, bringing to life the pale-pink walls where his mother lived until she was beaten to death in 1998 by thugs in the Inlet neighborhood.

Then he walked up to the roof, where the view of the Absecon Lighthouse, the Atlantic Ocean, Tony Baloney's, and, of course, the massive but nearly bankrupt Revel stretched out before him. His face lit up. It still sustains him, this modest possession his parents bought for $16,000 in 1969. He feels their lives there yet.

"There's a lot of blood and sweat and tears in keeping the building going," he said. "It's my pride and joy. And that's my lighthouse."

It's a complicated story, past and present, one discussed for hours in court Tuesday afternoon, when the CRDA argued that it was within its statutory mandate to take Birnbaum's home for future, as yet unspecified, development.

"The Legislature on five separate occasions said that Atlantic City as a whole is an area in need of redevelopment," lawyer Stuart Lederman told Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez.

He argued that the Tourism District mandated economic development as a public purpose that justified the use of eminent domain, a claim disputed by Birnbaum and his attorneys.

Mendez, who did not immediately rule in the case, said that Revel's success could also be construed as being in the public interest if one considers jobs, taxes, and the city's overall health. He noted that the CRDA's master plan contained general plans for the area.

Legal Aid lawyer Olga Pomar, representing about a dozen tenants among 62 townhouse units who have not yet been relocated (the owner is not fighting the taking), argued that the Tourism District gave the CRDA municipal powers, not sweeping eminent domain powers.

For tenant Sandra Taliaferro, it felt like a familiar betrayal of Atlantic City residents for the benefit of a casino. She says she has found no acceptable alternative to her home at the Metropolitan Plaza and does not want to be relocated into a high-crime area "on the other side of Atlantic Avenue." She and other tenants said the CRDA, which controls the Tourism District, had shut off street lights in the area and removed dumpsters.

For Birnbaum, no amount of money would persuade him to abandon the building that gave his parents a sense of accomplishment at being homeowners, sustained them in their old age, and, tragically, was the scene of his mother's murder. He replaces that ending with memories of her life each time he enters.

The CRDA, the authority charged with using casino reinvestment tax dollars to reinvest in neighborhoods throughout New Jersey, has appraised the home at $238,500.

Lawyer Robert McNamara of the Institute for Justice said the CRDA, now against a backdrop of declining casino revenue, had offered no justification for seeking to condemn and take ownership of Birnbaum's land.

It is surrounded by vacant land - some of which will be auctioned in a bankruptcy sale on Wednesday - known as "Pauline's Prairie," cleared by a public housing official for development that never arrived. (Only Revel, and celebrated hipster pizza joint Tony Baloney's, have taken up anew in the Inlet.)

McNamara called the CRDA's actions "unlawful and unconstitutional," not unlike the Coking case, in which Coking was ultimately allowed to keep her home in the shadow of Trump Plaza, a fight lampooned in Doonesbury. (She no longer lives there because of health reasons, and the house is for sale. Trump no longer wants it; in fact Trump Plaza is also available.)

"The CRDA has no plan for what it wants to do with this property," McNamara said. "CRDA's position is there are no limits to its exercise of eminent domain."

Birnbaum said he was grateful for the help and for any voices that echoed his own "Not so fast."

"There's a slogan in Atlantic City that says, 'Do AC,' " Birnbaum said. "They're telling me to do it somewere else. I don't want to."

After hearing the Chopin ├ętude in his house, Birnbaum's partner in the piano-tuning business, Joe Mancini, remarked, "They should pay him to stay."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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