Chelsea Revitalized As A Community Sparks Turnaround In South Jersey

Written By Stephanie Loder on November 4, 2023 - Last Updated on January 19, 2024
An employee shines the sign for the Chelsea Hotel, much like community members and incoming companies are investing in the Chelsea area of Atlantic City to help turn the neighborhood around.

Positive change is taking place in Chelsea.

A section here that has been a longtime neighbor of the Atlantic City casino industry, Chelsea features a park that had been dormant years prior. Police often moved out homeless who set up camp in the park.

Most of the improvements in recent years are the coordinated effort between the Chelsea neighborhood residents, the Economic Development Corporation (EDA) and the city.

There’s attention to safety and beautification.

“We hear a lot from people outside the district and say you’re doing great work,” said Elizabeth Terenik, president of the Chelsea EDA. “We know we benefited a lot of people and small businesses directly through grant programs. Because of the different cultures and socioeconomic levels in the neighborhood, it’s really challenging to get people to know us and trust us and let us help them.

“I feel like in the last few months, we’re starting to see people really embrace us and help out doing cleanups or events. They want to come up to us. We don’t have to beg them to stop and talk to us.”

Diversity abounds in Atlantic City community

There are clean sidewalks. The aroma of freshly fried empanadas beckons passersby. Special events take place in neighborhood gardens and the park.

Chelsea was once home to the Golden Nugget and Atlantic Club. It also was the location of the proposed Dunes Hotel and Casino that started construction in the 1980s.

Chelsea is a multicultural community. It has become home to hundreds of independently owned, culturally diverse businesses. Dozens of international neighborhood restaurants offer a taste of each culture.

Chelsea boasts the most diversified neighborhood economy in Atlantic City. Neighbors speak 20 different languages including English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Bengali and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Gone are empty lots and storefronts. It’s an easy four-block walk along the historic Atlantic City Boardwalk from Albany Avenue to Tropicana Atlantic City on Brighton.

O’Donnell Memorial Park, set between Atlantic and Pacific avenues, hosts yoga in the summer and special events throughout the year.

Changing Chelsea, five years in the making

A turning point for Chelsea happened in 2018 when Stockton University built a new University District where Atlantic City High School once stood between Albany and Trenton avenues. The university’s new oceanfront dorms are a stone’s throw from the location of the old Dunes Hotel and Casino, which had become a vacant lot after demolition.

The Atlantic City Dunes casino was proposed as a 34,500-square-foot casino at the end of Albany Avenue on the Boardwalk but never became more than just a steel skeleton before being demolished in 1991.

Stockton University in May opened a new 135,000-square-foot, six-story residence hall at the corner of Atlantic and South Providence avenues in the Chelsea section of the city. The hall on the Boardwalk in Chelsea was renamed Kesselman Hall for President Harvey Kesselman, who retired this year as Stockton’s fifth president.

The Stockton University Phase II complex features apartment- and suite-style living with a total of 416 beds. There’s also a lounge on each floor, a meeting room, a business center and laundry facilities. Students have views of the beach, the boardwalk and O’Donnell Park, and they have access to a courtyard with outside seating.

Construction in 2017 on a complex for a Stockton University satellite campus and the new headquarters for South Jersey Gas.

Economic infusion from other sources

Another turning point for Chelsea in 2018 was when South Jersey Gas opened a new headquarters in Chelsea, part of the $210 million, public-private redevelopment initiative on 270,000 square feet of land in Lower Chelsea. The utility’s headquarters features 75,000 square feet of office space for about 200 employees in Chelsea.

DEEM Enterprises is trying to build a $3.2 billion Renaissance project for high-end sports cars at Bader Field, located at Albany and Filbert avenues in Chelsea. Soil tests and a traffic study are underway to see if it’s feasible.

In March 2023, Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. signed a memorandum of understanding with DEEM Enterprises. The contract gave the group six months to determine if they could successfully create housing and retail development on the historic airport property. The development would include a 2.4-mile auto racetrack.

Atlantic City’s Bader Field once provided air service through Allegheny Airlines in the 1950s. Flight services later were moved to Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.

The city-owned property is a prime redevelopment site. It has been used for Bamboozle music festivals and the Atlantic City Beer and Music Fest.

The history of Chelsea has seen plenty of ups and downs

Before casino gambling in the 1950s and 1960s, generations of families lived in the Chelsea section of Atlantic City, located on Absecon Island and a next-door neighbor to the City of Ventnor.

Chelsea residents lived and worked in the community. Children attended city schools. Parents worked in the casino industry, took a jitney, or walked to work at their jobs.

Many residents moved off the island with their own families for economic reasons in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Chelsea, again, saw a change.

Houses and apartments became empty, as did stores. Some houses were divided into apartments.

The city saw several mayors go to jail as a result of corruption investigations.

In November 2016 under Gov. Chris Christie, the New Jersey takeover of Atlantic City began. At the time, five of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos had closed.

Of course, Chelsea has strong ties to Atlantic City casinos

The Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino opened its doors in 1980 at Boston and Pacific.

Steve Wynn, one of the most influential casino moguls of the time, brought Golden Nugget to AC. He felt the AC casino would succeed since he had success in building and running the sister location in Las Vegas.

Golden Nugget was the sixth casino to be built in AC since the state legalized casino gambling in 1976. It cost $140 million to build.

The original Golden Nugget location in Chelsea became Atlantic Club in 2012. (What is now Golden Nugget Atlantic City became that way in 2011 after a $38 million purchase by Landry’s, Inc. helped replace what was then Trump Marina.)

The Atlantic Club shuttered in 2014.

Rocco Sebastiani Rendering

Atlantic Club could make a grand return in 2025

Rocco Sebastiani, president of Colosseo Atlantic City Inc., announced plans in February to renovate and reopen the former Atlantic Club. His plans call for a “condo-tel” similar to the ones in Florida where he grew up.

Sebastiani’s goal is to open the property in 2025. He’s awaiting approvals from the city for the condos.

He can see the changes in Chelsea since purchasing the shuttered property in 2019.

Sebastiani remembers a recent dinner trip to historic Tony’s Baltimore Grill, located in the shadow of Atlantic Club, for dinner.

Sebastiani saw three homeless encampments behind Atlantic Club’s parking garage. He found used drug needles on the sidewalk. More homeless were sleeping in O’Donnell Park at the intersection of South Albany and Ventnor Avenues in Chelsea.

He reached out to Stockton University law enforcement officers, who along with city police helped Sebastiani with added enforcement in this section of Chelsea.

“I figured that if I were a parent,” Sebastiani said, “I wouldn’t want my kid walking through that.”

He credited Stockton for stepping up.

“Stockton got involved and started sending over special officers to do outreach and a couple of police officers from Atlantic City,” he said. “They started waking up the homeless in the encampment and sending them away.”

Chelsea ‘taking public safety really seriously’

Terenik said Chelsea EDA uses funding to pay for special officers to patrol Chelsea, specifically the park. The special officers are off-duty Atlantic City police officers.

“We pay special detail officers and we direct them what to do,” Terenik said. “We hire them for two shifts a week and specifically tell them to make sure no one is sleeping in the park in an encampment or has an open container of alcohol.”

Officers have issued 194 summons for quality-of-life issues and made seven narcotics arrests. As Terenik put it:

“In this neighborhood, we’re taking public safety really seriously.”

Sebastiani sees a whole new Chelsea

Sebastiani compares the Chelsea area where Stockton University sits in AC to a campus of Penn State or the University of Connecticut.

He credits Kesselman, the now-retired Stockton president, for his vision of the Chelsea neighborhood. Streetlights around campus illuminate walkways each night.

“The streets are clean, all the way to the Tropicana,” Sebastiani said. “I’ve never seen so many kids in this area walking around at 8 p.m. I feel good about it.

“This was his vision. What he did with the new campus turned Chelsea around. Now, people want to come here.”

Redeveloping Chelsea’s neighborhood

Restaurants, shopping and specialty stores are thriving in Chelsea.

The area is home to more than 20 diverse restaurants and three markets: Madina Grocery and Produce, La Villita Farm Market, and Boom Food Market supply produce to the community.

In recent years, Chelsea EDC has partnered with city residents, businesses and community organizations. They’re creating projects that expand Chelsea, both the economy and the quality of life.

The EDC, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit community development corporation, offers a variety of events and assistance to the neighborhood. It welcomes AC visitors who may someday want to make Chelsea their home.

Chelsea EDC offers:

  • A free Ring doorbell installation program for residents.
  • Yoga in the park.
  • Free homebuying classes

Two residents relax in O'Donnell Park in Chelsea

Events galore to help bring community together and build upon it

The Bazaar at Chelsea is a weekly gathering and cultural exchange in O’Donnell Park where neighbors are invited to bring their family, food, ideas, interests and other meaningful aspects of their lives to share in the community. The event offers food, language skills practice, and a swap meet for clothes, art and toys along with homework help.

Terenik holds public meetings at the EDC Office, located in Chelsea at 3750 Atlantic Avenue to talk about community needs. A recent meeting was to get public input on how to spend $1 million in grant funds in 2024.

Perhaps one of the best events in Chelsea is the annual Empanada Challenge, where the growing number of local restaurants compete for top prize.

The 2023 winner was La Parada del Borinqueño y Algo Mas, besting competitors Boom Food Market, Good Dog Bar, Machu Picchu Peruvian Restaurant, Mexico Restaurant and Bar, Queens and Sabor Latino II. The grand prize winner was announced on a billboard in Chelsea.

The homebuying classes provide information about programs that help with the full down payment to buy a home in Chelsea. There’s also information about how to qualify for a mortgage and ways to improve credit scores.

What’s next for Chelsea as it bounces back?

The Chelsea EDC encourages visitors to live in Chelsea. The area is primed for economic revitalization, the Chelsea EDC reports. Sebastiani expects to hear before the end of the year about the permitting for his project.

Renderings show the 23-story South Tower with six condos per floor ranging in size from 1,800 square feet to 3,000 square feet.

The North Tower will be a 330-room branded” high-end boutique hotel.

“So, the project will be classified as a condo-tel, with condos on one side and a hotel on the other side,” Sebastiani said. “It’s going to take us two years to open.”

Sebastiani plans private elevators to take residents up to the 120 condos in the South Tower. The amenities will include:

  • Movie theater
  • Golf simulator
  • Fitness center
  • Yoga
  • Wine cellars (if condo owners choose to have one)

“We’ve had a really good working relationship with AC,” he said.

Terenik said the EDC is making sure Chelsea houses are being sold to homebuyers who will live in the community.

“I’m not going to give up on people in this neighborhood buying homes,” Terenik said.

“I want to be able to reach them and make sure it’s them getting the homes and living in them. I want the houses to go to the people who are here, rather than seeing them snatched up by investors.”

Photo by Mel Evans / AP Photo
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Written by
Stephanie Loder

Stephanie Loder is a freelance writer for PlayNJ. She provides coverage of New Jersey's Atlantic City casinos while also focusing on the beach, boardwalk, and special gaming events. Prior to writing for PlayNJ, she covered Atlantic City government, breaking news, and casinos for The Press of Atlantic City in Pleasantville, N.J.

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