After rare victory for the little guy, Atlantic City piano tuner gets to keep his house after eminent domain battle

Not yet retired, Charlie Birnbaum has tuned the ivory keys for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett

David Usborne
New York
Saturday 06 August 2016 17:56 BST
The little house that could.  Mr Birnbaum's small brick house flanked by towers
The little house that could. Mr Birnbaum's small brick house flanked by towers

A piano tuner in Atlantic City has scored a rare victory turning back casino-industry forces far bigger than him to thwart their efforts to seize and demolish his home by eminent domain.

A court ruling saying he can keep the house with no fear of the bulldozers and the wrecking ball has marked the end of a four-year nightmare for 69-year-old Charlie Birnbaum, who in his time has tuned pianos in local casinos for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others.

Bought by Mr Birnbaum’s parents in 1969, the narrow, three-storey brick house sits in the shadow of the shimmering but currently defunct Revel Casino Hotel. The complex which cost $2.4 billion to build, declared bankruptcy in 2014 and has yet to reopen.

The Revel became a symbol of Atlantic City’s swift decline as a centre of gambling and tourism on the shore of New Jersey. Last week the owners of the Trump Taj Mahal hotel, which is no longer associated with Donald Trump, said it would close after a long strike by its workers.

Nearly twenty years ago, Mr Birnbaum’s mother and a home-help assistant were both murdered in the house and he turned the ground floor into a piano tuning studio in his mother’s memory. The higher floors are rented out and he lives a few miles away.

Charlie Biernbaum on the roof of his house with the Revel Hotel behind him

The city, in the form of a body called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, had wanted him and his tenants gone and the structure razed, allegedly to move forward with plans for a mixed housing and retail development in the area.

But a judge on Friday threw out the request calling it an abuse of eminent domain, under which government can take away a person’s property if it is demonstrably in the public interest. The practice is abhorred by libertarians, who say it allows the trampling of property owners.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who two years before had ruled in favour of the city taking the house, which sits one block from the beach, noted that with all the economic set-backs in Atlantic City - including the problems at the Revel - there was no guarantee that the development plans touted by the city would ever actually go forward.

“This has been a four-year process to finally hear this news that things can come back to some kind of normal, that our beloved place is still ours, and we can be part of whatever good is going to come to Atlantic City and it will,” a relieved Mr Birnbaum declared. “I can be part of it. That’s all I kinda asked for.”

“It's been a decision long overdue,“ he said. ”My wife and I were just so grateful and thankful for the outcome.”

Judge Mendez first put a hold on the seizure of the tiny home last April citing his concerns about the viability of any development in the area. In his ruling on Friday, he said that the project the city put before him was “not likely to occur within the foreseeable future” given the history of failed projects in the past.

The city may not yet have given up on the are and Mr Birnbaum’s house, however.

John Palmieri, the CRDA’s executive director, said the agency is disappointed in the ruling “and will be examining the opinion to determine our next steps.”

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