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New Life for a Legendary Seaside City

Would you bet $1.2 billion to develop 56 acres in a city of 17,000 where the median household income is $23,000 and only 58 percent of the residents are employed? Probably not — unless, of course, that downtrodden burg had as its eastern border a spectacular strip of oceanfront, was within easy reach of New York and Philadelphia and had, thanks to the worldwide fame of adopted son Bruce Springsteen, instant name recognition.

Asbury Park, the faded resort with more welfare recipients than sunbathers, is currently experiencing the biggest community redevelopment effort that New Jersey has seen since public and private funds were poured into rebuilding the state's largest city, Newark. The overall goal of the project is to create a combination of restaurants, entertainment and shopping attractions to bring daytrippers back. If that can be done in Asbury, the planners say, the formula can be replicated in other forgotten resort areas.

In October, Asbury Partners, a partnership between D Sass Municipal Finance Partners III and Ocean Front Acquisitions, signed on the dotted line to remake Asbury Park's Prime Renewal Area, a site overlooking the beach within the city's 230-acre redevelopment zone. Now, Asbury Partners and its chief operating officer, Larry Fishman, are preparing to create a seaside Shangri-la that includes a 450,000-square-foot entertainment-retail complex book-ended by the Casino, a late-Victorian boardwalk entertainment complex, and the famous rock club The Stone Pony. Fishman hopes to fill the abandoned Casino with a first-rate restaurant, and plans for the convention hall to rock more (and its roof to leak less) once Asbury Partners purchases the property later this year. The revitalization plan also includes 3,150 new middle-income apartment units, which will increase the housing stock by about 50 percent.

What are the chances for success? Repeated attempts to revitalize Asbury Park have not worked. In the late 1980s, the idea of making Asbury Park an entertainment destination was also floated, with talk of bringing in the Jackson clan of musicians, a Jacques Cousteau water world and the Ringling Bros. Circus. And those ideas never got off the ground. Despite the cachet of Springsteen and a recent spurt of gentrification, the town retains a seedy reputation.

Susan Kurland, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield, which is handling the retail leasing, says the comprehensiveness of this project will make the difference. “It's the only development along the whole shore where we're going to try to turn it into a seven-day-a-week entertainment complex for families,” she says. “I don't think we need to overcome anything.”

The key is family entertainment, Fishman agrees. “The New Jersey shore needs a destination that is more family-oriented, rather than focused on kids and teenagers, and a lot of family-oriented retailers are thinking the same,” he says. And Kurland has her sights on “music venues, lots of different types of restaurants, bowling, indoor miniature golf.” Boston-based Legal Sea Foods is a possible tenant for one of four to six restaurant slots. There will also be retail for the new residents, perhaps a Whole Foods or other specialty grocer. Initial retail rents will be $15 per square foot, and Fishman expects that rate to rise to $35 within five years. (In nearby Long Branch, a more suburban community, average rents are currently $20 per square foot.)

Other projects are also afoot. The city is renovating the boardwalk, while Asbury Partners is fixing up five boardwalk pavilions, for which it paid the city $3.5 million. These will be used for seasonal retailing, such as beach shops, with second-floor office space above.

The overall design plan, prepared by Nory Hazaveh of SOSH Architects, will be submitted for municipal review at the end of January. If the retail strategy is approved, Kurland estimates that it will take a year to fill spaces with the kind of tenant that will make Asbury Park a destination location.

Back from Obsolescence

Like other 19th-century resorts on the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park got its start as a religious retreat. Vacationing, however, quickly trumped religion, and by the turn of the twentieth century the seaside city had become a popular amusement center with deluxe hotels fronting its boardwalk.

By the 1950s, new highways made the whole coast an easy day trip for car-owning residents of New Jersey's swelling suburbs, and the hotels began to fail. Later they were used as SROs and halfway houses for mental patients, says Mayor Kevin Sanders. Race riots in 1970 killed the remaining beach scene.

In 1984, 230 acres of Asbury Park were deemed “blighted” under New Jersey state law and two years later, redevelopment rights to the city's Prime Renewal Area were sold to Carabetta/Vaccaro Developers. Its keystone project, the Ocean Mile Condominium Tower, was never completed due to its bankruptcy in 1992. The building's concrete-and-steel shell still blocks off several lanes of Ocean Avenue.

Asbury Partners bought the tax liens and redevelopment rights to the Prime Renewal Area in 2001, paying Carabetta/Vaccaro $6.5 million and for $7.5 million, respectively, for them. It has worked with the city since then to create a site master plan by architectural firms Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn and Clarke Caton Hintz. The community endorsed the plan in June 2002. The city is providing 50 percent tax abatements over the course of nine years, as well as purchase credits worth $4 million. Even Carabetta/Vaccaro's Ocean Mile Condominium Tower will be completed, says Fishman — albeit with a new design.

What could help this ambitious revitalization project succeed is the economic momentum that gentrification has already created. Savvy professionals from New York — many of them same-sex couples — have snatched up the dilapidated houses that are a few minutes' walk from the Atlantic Ocean. Three-bedroom houses, for example, now sell for upwards of $200,000, more than triple their value five years ago.

“The trend toward revitalization was addressed by that part of the population, and that made us interested in Asbury,” says Fishman. Some of the new homeowners, however, are concerned about the commercialization of their neighborhood. And while long-time residents may find that the redevelopment provides new construction and service jobs, the $250,000 price tags for apartments won't do them much good.

Retail and entertainment development may also help Asbury Park draw patrons from neighboring communities who now avoid the town. “Deal, Ocean Grove and Belmar certainly attract families, so I think that, with this revitalization, there's going to be a waning fear of the area, which will make it more appealing to them,” says Alex Dambach, a New Jersey planner.

In fact, if successful, the redevelopment of Asbury Park's ocean front may transform the city's demographics. “It will bring tourism, economic development and, ultimately, visitors who will make Asbury Park their home,” says Fishman.

Nobody associated with the project, however, is predicting instantaneous success. “Cities aren't formed — or reformed — overnight, and sometimes they develop independently of design intent,” says a planning consultant to the city. “It will be many years before this rock'n'roll entertainment Mecca is realized, and who knows what would happen in the interim?”

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