Reviving a Seaside Resort

September 30, 2007 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

FOR decades, this small city of 32,000 was one of the mysteries of the Jersey Shore.

Long Branch, like its longtime rival Asbury Park, seemed impervious to the rising real estate market and the thirst for waterfront property that had revived virtually every other beach town, from Sandy Hook south to Cape May. A long stretch of Long Branch’s oceanfront was a battered array of go-go joints, vacant storefronts, weedy lots, drug dealers, decrepit housing and a defunct water slide. Through the 1980s and 1990s, weekend beachgoers just headed farther south, avoiding the place altogether.

But Long Branch is now hot, hot, hot. The boardwalk has been rebuilt, and the beaches have been replenished with sand. There are new condominium towers and town houses. The Ocean Place Resort and Spa just announced a $500 million expansion project, and the city has unveiled plans to rebuild the amusement pier that burned down in 1987.

And at the newly established Pier Village complex along Ocean Avenue, there are chic shops, apartments under gabled roofs, three elegant restaurants and a private beach club with palm trees where members recline while waiters fetch mojitos and crab cakes.

Indeed, Travel and Leisure magazine placed Long Branch among the top 20 American beaches this summer, alongside Waianapanapa, the black-sand beach on the Hawaiian island Maui. New York magazine touted Long Branch as an ideal spot for Manhattanites to get a “dose of sand and sea” and still get home for dinner. New Jersey Bride magazine called it “the shore’s hippest spot for tying the knot.”

One indicator of the city’s comeback is its sale of 111,125 beach badges this past summer, nearly twice as many as last year, and 284 percent more than in 2000. And crowds are still expected to stroll the boardwalk this fall.

“There’s so much energy here,” said Peter Visceglia, a developer from Red Bank who was enjoying the sun last month behind the thick rope that separates the beach club’s 400-foot stretch of private oceanfront from the public. He and his wife, Michele, leased an apartment at Pier Village for summer and fall getaways. “They really created something special.”

The rejuvenation of what was once New Jersey’s most important resort is not an overnight sensation. Adam Schneider, the mayor of Long Branch for the past 17 years, said that he and the city council started working on a master redevelopment plan in 1996. Still, the real estate boom in the 1990s left Long Branch pretty much untouched.

But now, in addition to the beach-area development, work is beginning on creating a new arts district on Broadway, a dowdy commercial strip downtown.

This does not mean that all the longtime residents are happy about the changes. Some property owners have protested and filed lawsuits over the city’s use of eminent domain to seize their land to make way for development like the arts district or the next phases of Pier Village, which will expand to the west and the south. In a city where 16.7 percent of the people live below the poverty line, some residents wonder whether they will be pushed out just when Long Branch is on the mend.

In the late 1700s, Long Branch was one of the country’s first resorts, attracting visitors from Philadelphia and New York to its boarding houses. A century later, Lillie Langtry, Diamond Jim Brady and Presidents Grant and Garfield made their way to Long Branch for the salt air, the big hotels and the gambling halls, and the horse racing at nearby Monmouth Park.

Later, Long Branch was eclipsed by Asbury Park, a beach town a few miles south, though today Asbury Park is years behind Long Branch in its effort to redevelop its shorefront.

By the 1960s, both cities were in decline. Unlike most beach towns, Long Branch and Asbury Park had thrived year-round with commercial centers and some industry, but jobs were leaving and summer tourists were heading elsewhere.

Long Branch’s nadir came in 1987 when a fire destroyed a fishing and amusement pier and a long section of boardwalk. For years, the swath sat as a forlorn symbol of decline.

But with other shore towns largely built up, developers began giving Long Branch a second look. Two years ago, Applied Companies built the $100 million Pier Village on the site of the old pier and amusement park. The land was one of four areas in the city that had been marked for redevelopment. The company built 322 rental apartments in four-story buildings on Ocean Avenue. But unlike many condo towers, Pier Village also has a sense of place. On a recent weekend, hundreds of people streamed through the street-level shops and restaurants and along the boardwalk. The crowds are still out at 10 p.m.

“You’re talking about an area that you wouldn’t walk through during the day, let alone the night,” said Mayor Schneider. “Now there are more social events and economic activity in the winter than we used to have during the entire summer.”

Mr. Schneider and local developers say the key to the turnaround has been a stable political leadership and the city’s decision to hire urban planners to create their own vision, rather than waiting for developers to tell the city what they wanted to build. The mayor said the city has also insisted that developers either set aside about 10 percent of the units they build at below-market rates for low- and moderate-income families, or contribute to a housing fund.

Howard H. Woolley Jr., the city’s business administrator, said that Applied Companies, the Pier Village developer, initially wanted to put up a more standard residential project. But the city insisted that the company stick to the master plan and build a mixed-use project that included shops, restaurants and a nightclub so that it would become an oceanfront destination.

The company has now started the second phase of Pier Village, an additional 240 apartments, more shops and a 30-room hotel. “We saw an opportunity to bring a new urbanism and panache to the shore,” said David B. Barry, the company’s president.



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