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Big Tech on the Boardwalk: How Resiliency Could Redefine Atlantic City

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"The dialogue about resiliency is where the conversation about sustainability was 15 years ago," says Daniel Windsor, a senior urban designer at Perkins+Will. With future environmental challenges moving into the forefront of city planning discussions, from the California drought to superstorms like Sandy in the northeast, can design address these issues while keeping economic issues in mind? This question led Windsor and his colleagues in the firm's Resiliency Task Force to seek out a unique case study to show how resiliency could also reposition and redefine a coastal economy: Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"We saw a need not only due to its vulnerability to storms such as Sandy," he says, "but also due to the failing, gambling-based economy. We could find a new niche, a new economic catalyst, and reposition the entire city."

With revenues and jobs highly dependent on a struggling gambling industry—four large hotel/casinos closed last year in the face of increased regional competition—as well as increasing threats from coastal storm systems and sea level increases, the resort city presented an unique opportunity. Encouraged by the chair of the firm's resiliency task force, Janice Barnes, Windsor's group at Perkins + Will engaged in a design charrette that used Atlantic City as a case study. The design team decided that any plan for true resiliency needed put the city's economy on firmer footing. The team's core concept was to reuse a resource common to similar entertainment districts, namely the proliferation of large, voluminous buildings such as hotels and casinos, and transform them into research labs, testing facilities and other spaces that could support research, high-tech industry and commerce. The end goal is mixed-use communities funded by a large public private-partnership, a set up that often lead to innovation. Even better, the changes and building alterations Perkins + Will envisions for the Boardwalk Empire would be relatively cost-effective.

"The dark, big boxes are very unique," says Windsor. "We can use them as even more of an economic generator."

Repositioning the city as a research cluster is more than retrofitting buildings, he says. Atlantic City's downtown core, roughly the size of a small college town, could become a laboratory for resiliency research due to its location, and serve as an example for the numerous other coastal cities grappling with similar issues due to storm surges and increasing sea levels.

"By no means do we think Atlantic City is doomed, or this is the silver bullet that can save it," says Windsor. "But with the current situation happening in Atlantic City, there's a lot of alignment with other, vulnerable coastal cities worth exploring."

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