Posted May 7, 2010

A Seaside Gem Sparkles Again

After years of decline, Long Branch has reclaimed its place as a top Jersey Shore destination—but not without controversy.


Adam Schneider remembers when the Long Branch amusement pier burned down in 1987. The once-popular seaside resort’s waterfront became seedy and dangerous, a place so undesirable that even the go-go bars were closing. You couldn’t even get a slice of pizza.

“People wanted to go to the beach, but then you need a shower and a bathroom and something to eat,” says Schneider, Long Branch’s five-term mayor. “We had none of that.”

Fast-forward to 2010. Long Branch’s boardwalk has been rebuilt, the beaches cleaned up, and a massive redevelopment project has resulted in hundreds of new apartments and townhouses, plus rows of shops, restaurants, and bars, making this town one of New Jersey’s hottest Shore destinations.

Travel and Leisure named Long Branch one of the twenty best beaches in the country in 2007. New York magazine called it a great place for New Yorkers to make a day trip to the sea. We suspect that real New Jersey folks are enjoying it, too.

The centerpiece of the redeveloped waterfront is Pier Village, a mini-city of pastel-colored, four-story buildings reminiscent of Dutch canal houses. The buildings contain 536 rental units, mostly one-bedroom apartments intended to attract singles with no child-ren. At street level are 100,000 square feet of shops and eateries, many arrayed around a central waterfront plaza of red brick and lush lawns. There’s also a boutique hotel called Bungalow and a trendy private beach club (replete with palm trees). Just north of Pier Village is the Ocean Place Resort and Spa, a 254-room hotel built by Hilton in 1990.

The Pier Village shops sell everything from clothing to surf gear to caramel apples. For more substantial fare, there is waterfront dining at Avenue, Tim McLoone’s Pier House, and Sirena. There’s nightlife, too, at places like Avenue Nuit and the Wine Loft.

The one thing you can’t get there, critics say, is a quart of milk. The closest thing to a grocery store Pier Village residents had was a gourmet Italian market, which has since closed.

Pier Village is a hive of activity. Throughout the summer, starting June 17, there are jazz concerts at the gazebo every Thursday night. The annual Fourth of July celebration, dubbed Oceanfest, attracts about 200,000 attendees to the waterfront. On Labor Day weekend, there is a jazz and blues festival on the Great Lawn at the Ocean Promenade just north of Pier Village, between Ocean Place and Rooney’s Crab House.

And it’s all within striking distance of local attractions like Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park, a 38-acre public park and beach; old-school icons like the beloved Max’s Hot Dogs and the WindMill; and the edgier West End, with its own bustling bar-and-restaurant scene—including long-time favorite hangout the Inkwell.

As a striking measure of the new waterfront’s success, revenues from beach fees have grown from $180,000 two decades ago to about $1 million last summer, Schneider says. (Beachgoers pay $5 for a daily pass or $35 for the season.)

“Long Branch is a destination again,” exults Paul Booth, a lifelong Long Branch resident and co-owner of The Coaster, a newspaper based in nearby Asbury Park.

And it’s not just a summer destination. On one of the first warm days this spring, nearly all the outdoor parking spots at Pier Village were gone by noon.

“You can’t even get in here in the summer,” says Bonnie DiBenedetto of Monroe Township. She and her husband came to Pier Village recently for breakfast at the Turning Point. “Every time we come down here, I say we should move here,” DiBenedetto says.

It’s been a long road back for Long Branch (population 32,622), once one of the Jersey Shore’s summer gems. The city can trace its roots as a resort back to the 1700s; by the 1860s, Long Branch had begun to attract an elite crowd from the large Eastern cities.

Among the early arrivals was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Eager to escape the humidity (and the political heat) of Washington, D.C., she stayed in the Mansion House during the summer of 1861. Her seal of approval added to the city’s cachet.

“Long Branch was already becoming fashionable, but once she was in the paper here, it became a big deal,” says Beth Woolley, a local historian and trustee of the Long Branch Historical Association.

Over the next 50 years, so many wealthy people vacationed by the sea at the West End Court section of Ocean Avenue that it was called Little Wall Street. A summer branch of the New York Stock Exchange was set up in the Rothenberg Hotel for the many stockbrokers who vacationed in the area.

On Mary Lincoln’s recommendation, Ulysses S. Grant visited Long Branch, originally staying at the Stetson Hotel. Once he became president, a group of wealthy Long Branch homeowners—George Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger; George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Co.; and financiers Anthony Drexel and Moses Taylor—purchased a house for Grant in the Elberon section of town. They wanted the status of living near a president.

“They were trying to buy political influence,” says Woolley. “Nowadays, a president would be impeached for something like that.”

It was years later, in his Elberon home at 991 Ocean Avenue, that Grant bit into a peach and felt a pang of pain in his throat so fierce, he thought he’d been bitten by a wasp. It turned out he had throat cancer, a disease that would claim his life two years later.

Grant was the first in a long line of presidents to enjoy the cool breezes of Long Branch. Rutherford B. Hayes followed Grant, then James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson. Garfield’s final visit is the best remembered—he came to Long Branch to recover from a gunshot wound, but died there two weeks later.

“It was known as the Summer Capital. Seven presidents left Washington and set up shop here,” says local author Sharon Hazard. “Woodrow Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination here.”

The presidents put Long Branch in the national spotlight. Having one die in the town made it a national monument. But the nation’s chief executives were not the only ones to flock to the resort. Entertainers and high rollers of all sorts enjoyed the casinos and the nightlife. Steamships pulled into the Pleasure Bay section of town, bringing weekenders from Manhattan.

But the city’s fortunes began to change in 1893 when anti-gambling laws in New Jersey were passed, shuttering the oceanfront casinos and the original Monmouth Park racetrack, which was located in what was then called the Greater Long Branch Area. It was a major blow for a town where gambling was the biggest industry. The high rollers began to pack their trunks for Saratoga Springs instead.

Around the turn of the century, there was a new influx—wealthy German-Jewish families from New York such as the Guggenheims, the Loebs, and the Lehmans, all of whom had been shut out of the blue-blood society scene in Newport, Rhode Island. Quickly, Long Branch took on a new image as the Jewish Newport.

But on July 4, 1924, the Ku Klux Klan held a meeting in Long Branch, concluding with a four-hour march down Broadway. “It was the biggest Ku Klux Klan march in the country,” Woolley says. “Right after that, a lot of those wealthy Jewish people closed up shop and didn’t come back.” It was another devastating blow to the town’s hotels and other businesses.

By the 1950s, the new Garden State Parkway enabled beachgoers to travel farther south, bypassing Long Branch. The advent of the Monmouth Mall further strangled downtown shopping. But the city hit its nadir on June 8, 1987, when fire broke out on the boardwalk. Winds up to 30 mph whipped the flames through twenty businesses and the pier that housed the popular Kid’s World amusement park.

Until 1994, attempts to redevelop the oceanfront ended in failure, whether it was money, a cohesive plan, or political will that was missing. But in the mid-1990s, the stars seemed to align. Schneider, who became mayor in 1990, and the council were in harmony on the concept. They hired a planner and named Applied Development Company—now Hoboken-based Ironstate Development—as the developer. Together, they came up with a blueprint to redevelop the waterfront. (Later, other developers were brought in for different aspects of the citywide project.)

“We spent seven years planning what we were going to do before we put a shovel in the ground,” Schneider says. The plan created several waterfront redevelopment zones, which would include three new residential housing complexes, hotels, shops, and a new pier, as well as redevelopment zones along Broadway, the town’s main shopping thoroughfare. And it involved the acquisition by the developers of hundreds of properties, some of which were commercial properties and single- or multi-family homes, others of which were vacant. In the end, more than 220 properties were acquired, twenty seized through eminent domain.

Construction got underway in 2003. To date, two of three planned phases of Pier Village, and the first phase of Beachfront North, a 284-unit townhouse and condo development several blocks north of Pier Village, have been completed—but not without controversy. Numerous lawsuits over the eminent-domain claims have plagued the project. The property owners complained the city declared the whole area blighted and therefore in need of redevelopment, a characterization they strongly disputed. While the neighborhood had modest homes—much smaller than the waterfront mansions in neighboring Monmouth Beach and Deal—the plaintiffs said many of the homes were well maintained and had been occupied for decades.

The city initially prevailed in court, but an appeals court ruled in August 2008 that the city had not sufficiently proved that the area was blighted, a condition required in order to seize property under eminent domain. The case was sent back to the trial court, where the city would again have to justify its redevelopment zone.

Shortly after receiving the news, Schneider stood in Pier Village enjoying an all-day jazz and blues festival. The place was jumping. At 10 pm, the beaches were still crowded. The boardwalk was filled.

“I looked at it all and said, ‘We have to settle. We’ve achieved what we needed to achieve,’” Schneider says. (At deadline, the mayor was engaged in a tough battle for reelection.)

Under the settlement, city officials were no longer able to condemn homes for redevelopment. The city and Ironstate agreed to pay $435,000 in legal fees to the homeowners. In return, the city was able to proceed with a scaled-down redevelopment plan.

“I’m happy we got to keep the house,” says Long Branch homeowner Lori Ann Vendetti, “but I’m not happy about what we went through to keep what was rightfully ours.” Vendetti, who opposed the eminent domain seizures along with her parents, Carmen and Josephine Vendetti, says the city offered her $375,000 and her parents $410,000 for their homes, but it was never about the money.

“Even if they gave us $5 million, the house wasn’t for sale,” Vendetti says. “It was the principle of the case.” Vendetti adds that she might not have objected if the homes were being replaced by a police station or a park. “But don’t take our houses so someone else can live there in luxury condos.”

While the waterfront suits have been resolved, two remaining suits relating to the Broadway redevelopment area are still being contested. A state appeals court recently ruled in favor of the property owners, declaring—as in the earlier case—that the town had not made a sufficient case for eminent domain. In the face of that ruling, the town is mulling over its options for Lower Broadway redevelopment.

Meanwhile, beachfront development is continuing. Work is about to begin on the second phase of Beachfront North (reduced from 180 multi-family homes to just twenty single-family homes). Also on the drawing board is a third phase of Pier Village, which will add 45,000 square feet of retail, as well as 336 condos and a 72-room hotel. The plan had originally called for 200 rentals and 75 condos, but Greg Russo, principal at Ironstate Development, says his firm believes the market is moving from rentals to condos again.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the redevelopment plan is still to come. City officials are talking to potential developers about building a new $50 million pier with ferry service to New York, plus another $30 million to $40 million in shops, restaurants, and a winter garden for entertainment events on the new pier.

The homeowners fighting eminent domain are not alone in criticizing the ongoing redevelopment. Some locals claim the activity at the waterfront has yet to boost the nearby Broadway shopping district. “The redevelopment hasn’t helped us,” says a longtime employee at one business, who requested anonymity. “Our business, in certain aspects, decreased when hundreds of people were displaced.”

Broadway is a major shopping artery generally running perpendicular to Ocean Avenue, the main road that parallels the beach. The eastern end of Broadway is designated as the Gateway redevelopment zone, because it links the shopping district to Pier Village. Heading farther away from the beach, the next few blocks are to be developed as an arts district; plans include the renovation of the 2,000-seat Paramount Theater, which has been used most recently as a warehouse for Siperstein’s, the well-known paint store chain.

The paving blocks, faux gaslights, and freshly manicured landscaping of Pier Village contrast sharply with the adjacent blocks of Broadway, which look more like a war zone than a redevelopment zone. Actually, some Broadway properties were acquired for redevelopment and, in some cases, torn down. But the recession hit, the projects stalled, and those properties now lie fallow. The sign for the old Long Branch Flooring Company is missing so many letters, all it says now is “Long Bra h.”

“For Long Branch to realize its potential, it needs to get that Broadway Arts project working,” says Ironstate’s Russo (who is not involved in Broadway development). “The little area between that project and the oceanfront is critical.”

Todd Katz, who co-owns Siperstein’s and is one of the developers on the Broadway projects, hopes construction will begin next year. In the meantime, faux windowpanes and blinds have been painted on the abandoned buildings to disguise the blight.

“I didn’t want it to look like a boarded-up town while we waited for the demolition and redevelopment to occur,” says Katz.

Katz is among those who claim that waterfront development has already helped the businesses along Broadway—at least indirectly. “It’s changed the way Long Branch has been perceived for the last twenty years,” he says. Others say the strong police presence has helped, too.

A little farther west on Broadway, old businesses—like Bullet Lock, the Broadway Loan Company (a pawn shop), and Lapidus Décor (an interior design shop)—blend with new ventures that cater to the city’s highly visible Mexican and Brazilian communities, which have been growing over the past two decades.

“There’s more people on the street than there was before,” says Holly Lapidus, whose father, Seymour, began Lapidus Décor as a venetian-blind and screen-repair company 64 years ago.

Peter Dones, who in January 2009 opened Grand National Supermarket, which specializes in ethnic foods, says business is so good that he doesn’t have to do a lot of advertising. He already benefits from the fact that the nearest full-size supermarket is about a mile away.

“We started looking at Long Branch because they didn’t have anything to cater to the ethnic groups that are here,” says Dones, a former banker.

As for waterfront businesses, Tim McLoone, whose McLoone’s Pier House, was the first restaurant in Pier Village, couldn’t be more pleased. “When we first opened up, it was insanity.”

McLoone says most people in the area were happy to see something open up on the beach after having nothing but a rundown boardwalk for so many years. He understands the anger over eminent domain, but he believes condemnation was essential to rebuild the area.

“Certainly, I was a beneficiary [of eminent domain]. But I’m a runner, and I ran by those buildings for years, and they were rat infested, they were drug infested, there was violence. They were falling into the ocean. Literally. And now that area is a jewel,” McLoone says.

Median housing prices have risen from $138,800 in 2000 to about $300,000 at the end of 2009, though they’re down from the peak of about $540,000 in 2005. At Beachfront North, Phase 1, condos ranged from $400,000 to $1.5 million, and townhouses ran $500,000 to $2.5 million. It is 100 percent sold out, according to the developer. Meanwhile, Pier Village is 93 percent occupied, with monthly rents ranging from $1,295 for a studio apartment to $3,000 for a three-bedroom residence.

While the debate over Long Branch’s present and future will no doubt continue, several things are clear. “We had one of the largest redevelopment projects in the history of the state,” says Mayor Schneider. “We had one of the most controversial as well. But we rebuilt our waterfront.”

And then there’s this: You might not be able to find a pint of milk in Pier Village, but at least you can get a slice of pizza.


Long Branch Attractions:

Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park, 221 Ocean Ave North, 732-229-0924, Named after the seven presidents who summered in Long Branch, the mile-long public beach has a snack bar, changing facilities, skate park, and handicap- accessible play area.

Church of the Presidents, 1260 Ocean Ave, Built in 1879, this Gothic church—aka St. James Chapel—was where the “seven presidents” attended services while vacationing. Now closed, the Long Branch Historical Museum Association is fundraising to renovate and reopen the building, but visitors can still check out the exterior.

Max’s Hot Dogs, 25 Matilda Terr, 732-571-0248, This circa-1928 family-owned hotdog stand is famed for it’s foot-longs. It’s a stomping ground for celebs.

The WindMill, 586 Ocean Blvd, 732-229-9863, Opened in 1964 as the flagship of the Jersey fast-food chain (the only one in a windmill), their flat-grilled dogs and crinkle-cut fries rival Max’s in popularity.

Monmouth Park Racetrack, 175 Oceanport Ave, Oceanport, 732-222-5100, The historic mile-long dirt oval has seen countless thoroughbred races since its opening in 1870. The race season runs from the end of May through November, with $50 million in purse money up for grabs this year.

Copyright 2010 New Jersey Magazine