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Asbury Park's Long Recovery

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Asbury Park's Long Recovery

By JILL P. CAPUZZO - December 7, 2003

ASBURY PARK--Gabrielle Salemi recently stopped by to check on the granite countertops and ash wood flooring being installed in her new home, one of 30 apartments in the Britwoods Court Apartments, a restored 1920's Spanish Colonial Revival-style building that harkens back to one of this resort town's more luminous periods.

"I see it as a good investment for the future," said Ms. Salemi, who hopes this city by the sea is on the verge of another rebirth. "I don't have a 401(k) at my business, so I'm putting my money in real estate. I have the vision to wait if I have to."

Yet a few blocks away, Jeanine Cinseruli was bemoaning the visionary decision she made five years ago, when she bought a four-family house on Third Street, thinking she would cash in on the wave of mostly gay, urban trendsetters who were just discovering the diamond-in-the-rough appeal of this faded resort.

"Some days I think it's really happening, other times I think it's the biggest scam going," said Ms. Cinseruli. "These people who are buying houses here don't really live here. They're coming for weekends. I live with the people, I have tenants. I can't even walk my dog without 18 people asking me if I want to buy coke."

Comments like these can be heard at the Kingsley Deli, in City Hall, or on almost any street corner in Asbury Park, where the buzz is nearly deafening with people obsessively speculating about the future of a city left devoid of a middle class and ravaged by racial upheaval and municipal corruption.

These days, those seemingly certain of a pot of gold at the end of a protracted rainbow point to real estate prices that have increased 25 percent annually for the last few years, the opening of six new restaurants and a string of antique shops along Cookman Avenue downtown, and a $1.2 billion waterfront redevelopment plan that promises thousands of new homes and close to a half-million square feet of new commercial space.

Yet unconvinced residents and wary real estate investors point with equal vigor to the many for sale signs around town, an indication, they say, of investors cashing out before it is too late, a continuing stream of muggings and gang skirmishes that do not appear to be lessening, and a redevelopment plan that has yet to break ground in a city where sundown is the enemy.

In June 2002, Governor McGreevey joined local officials and developers here to praise the latest plan to redevelop the two oceanfront blocks of Asbury Park's mile of shoreline. A year earlier, Oceanfront Acquisitions had purchased the redevelopment rights on 130 acres of land - 56 of which can be built on - from the previous developer, Joseph Carabetta, who went bankrupt in 1992.

The designated tract falls within the city's larger 230-acre redevelopment zone and includes many of Asbury Park's historic entertainment buildings, residential properties and open land. Master developer Asbury Partners L.L.C. - a partnership of Oceanfront Acquisitions and D. Sass Municipal Finance Partners - plans to sell rights to such subdevelopers as Kushner Companies and Paramount Homes, who in turn plan to build 3,000 new apartments and townhouse condominiums as well as 450,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space.

At the time of the announcement, the chief operating officer of Asbury Partners, Larry Fishman, said the city would see the first 800 units built within the next six months.

Almost 18 months later, the only visible signs of progress at the waterfront are some spruced up concession stands and a half-mile stretch of boardwalk now being restored. Before the major construction can begin, the developers need approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, required under the state's Coastal Area Review Act, in addition to final approval from the city's Planning Board, both of which Mr. Fishman says he expect by this spring.

Hanging in the balance is a city at once awaiting a boom yet fearful that the runup of real estate prices will flatten, leaving investors with wildly inflated mortgages.

"This town is very shaky right now," said Rita Morano, the owner of Kingsley Deli, which sits across Kingsley Avenue from the rusted remains of the last attempt at revitalization here. "When you have redevelopment going on, you're supposed to see something happening."

Countering criticism, Mr. Fishman cited the $8 million boardwalk restoration, selection of subdevelopers, and technical reviews of two pavilions to be restored as "a tremendous amount of progress in a relatively short amount of time."

He also acknowledged that some of the studies and surveys required by the state "were much more detailed than we anticipated," noting that the company has invested $30 million on the project to date.

One issue holding up progress has been a debate over what to do with some of Asbury Park's historic landmarks, like Convention Hall, the Paramount Theater, the Casino, the Carousel House and the Palace, which define the city's past as one of the East Coast's leading resort destinations. Asbury Partners purchased Convention Hall and the Paramount from the city for $5 million, half of which was paid for with a credit the city owed the developers for the boardwalk repairs. Mr. Fishman said the plan is to restore the Carousel house while replacing the Casino and Palace with reasonable facsimiles, a proposal that has upset many preservationists.

Werner Baumgartner, the city's historian, is equally disturbed by what he sees as the privatization of the city's oceanfront, which the founder of Asbury Park, James Bradley, specifically designated to be used as public space when the city was developed at the turn of the last century.

"They're ignoring the whole draw of Asbury Park - a resort, oceanfront town - and missing out on the whole heritage tourism economy," said Mr. Baumgartner. "Instead, they're putting up high-density residential and a shopping mall. This is suburban mentality in a Jersey shore resort."

Moreover, opponents contend that Asbury Partners has spent more time trying to acquire additional property rather than proceeding with development on the land they now own. Any property within the designated area is subject to eminent domain, where the developers have the right to purchase the property for fair market value and raze it to make way for the planned development. While much of the zone consists of empty rubble-strewn lots and boarded up rooming houses, it also includes some private residences and buildings in which other developers have an interest.

For the last 45 years, Roxy Gokberk has lived in her turn-of-the-century home two blocks from the ocean, in the redevelopment district. She and her son, who lives next door, have been told they can sell their properties now to the developer or wait to be bought out through eminent domain. Stuck in this limbo, Ms. Gokberk said she was reluctant to make costly repairs to her seven-bedroom house even though she has no interest in selling.

"I've been looking forward to redevelopment, not thinking it would mean I had to move," said the 75-year-old woman. "I'm not anxious to make money off these developers. And I resent the fact that they think it's nothing and that I ought to sell and retire to Florida. This is my American dream."

At the Britwoods Court Apartments on Second Avenue, where one developer, Richard DiPetro, was granted the right to restore one of this city's first apartment houses, tenants are now moving into condominiums that sell for $119,000 to $300,000. Like so many of Asbury Park's other grand dames, the Britwoods and its neighbor, the Jersey Court Apartments, had been boarded up for several years.

Mr. DiPetro, who has undertaken the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Newark and Jersey City, was brought in eight years ago to assess the two buildings, which he ended up buying last year. While the Britwoods Court was spared the redeveloper's wrecking ball, Mr. DiPetro is in a legal battle with the city and the developers over restoring the Jersey Court.

"You can't develop your own property," said Mr. DiPietro. "You have to let the town take it under eminent domain and then buy it back from them."

Noting that developers have offered to sell him development rights for Jersey Court for $4 million, plus $3 million in infrastructure costs and six percent of gross sales, he said "These guys are being greedy."

The redevelopment plan calls for subdevelopers to build a full block at a time to ensure that design standards are met and related infrastructure repairs and parking are addressed, according to Mr. Fishman, who said that before the redevelopment plan was drawn up, individual developers showed little interest in Asbury Park.

"Prior to Asbury Partners coming to Asbury Park, developers such as DiPetro had 20 years to build and did nothing," said Mr. Fishman. "They're looking to piggy back on the development plan that we've committed to."

While some residents question the good-faith intent of the developers, others wonder how this crime-plagued city, where 30 percent of its 17,000 residents live below the poverty level, will attract people willing to pay $300,000 for a condominium or invest in the commercial space of the proposed waterfront development.

In September, the city council was asked to approve a $75,000 emergency appropriation for a "gang violence suppression" program, in the aftermath of a daytime shooting of two Haitians sitting in a parked car on Sewell Avenue. With 40 shootings attributed to gang warfare last year, the police director, Louis Jordan, told the council that "the issue of street gangs is out of control."

The state's Uniform Crime Report showed violent and nonviolent crime had dropped by about 12 percent in Asbury Park in one year. From 2001 to 2002, the number of murders dropped to 3 from 5, rapes were down to 9 from 14, and robberies fell to 172 from 184.

But Al Compoly, a long-time member of Asbury Park's neighborhood watch, suggested that to present a better face to potential investors, the police were underreporting crimes in the city, particularly the drug traffic, which he said was ravaging the city.

"They want this whole redevelopment thing to go and they want to tell people that crime is down," said Mr. Compoly. "I think that is the wrong message to put across. I certainly wouldn't walk the streets at night."

Ms. Gokberk agreed, saying she was nervous going out simply to get her newspaper because of the numerous drug transactions she said she witnesses across the street from her house.

"I do believe it's getting worse again," she said. "It's more visible. I love to sit on my front porch, but it's all I see."

Those who are buying into the future of Asbury Park say they are aware of the city's problems. And in fact some say they even welcome what they sense as an urban edginess that is far different from the sanitized shore towns that surround Asbury Park.

"What interests me most about the place is the diversity," said Damien Miano, a New York City hair salon owner who bought a 1930's townhouse here in September. "I'm not the sort of gay who wants to be in the Hamptons with a bunch of other rich white guys."

As for the potential dangers, Mr. Miano said, "I'd use the same sense that I would use if I were walking around Manhattan - somewhere that isn't always so safe."

Mike Nash recently paid about $600,000 for 4,600-square-foot Victorian three blocks from the ocean and around the corner from a Haitian church and soup kitchen. It is purchases like his that are used as a benchmark when many people speculate whether the market has topped out, or if housing prices have outstripped their real value. But for Mr. Nash, who counsels financially troubled companies and can recognize signs of potential trouble, he insisted that the move to Asbury Park was a good investment.

"My wife and I decided we were ready to reinvent ourselves, take another look at life," Mr. Nash said. "There are risks, however with the chance of things turning around here, and starting so low, it's not such a big risk."

Being a businessman, Mr. Nash has been careful to include an escape clause for himself.

"I've learned over the years that these decisions aren't permanent," he said. "If we go in there, and it's not going where we predicted it would go, we can get out without losing too much and do something else."

From The New York Times

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"I'm not the sort of gay who wants to be in the Hamptons with a bunch of other rich white guys."

That is the funniest quote!!

I'm glad to see Bruce's "Hometown" start to turn around.

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Asbury's round about an hour from Manhattan on NJTransit. I have a few gay friends in NYC who've bought places out there.

The Hamptons are sooooo 2002. :rolleyes:

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All I know about AP is Bruce. It's amazing that his fame didn't seem to help the place that much.

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Interestingly enough, Asburys neighboring towns are really nice places! Deal, to the north is a town with million dollar homes and very very upscale. To the south is Ocean Grove, not like Deal with million dollar homes but home to many homosexual residents and was in conjuction with Asbury to push the legalization of gay marriage in NJ. If Asbury is seeking urban renewal along the waterfront and the immediate blocks near it, its abandoned well known historical buildings of it being once operational as a boardwalk tourist destination is a good start to sway old timers & people who respect history back. However, decades of a bad reputation will be a uphill battle to bring in the new generation of people who know nothing more than the Stone Pony. Sad to say, Asbury is on the same boat with Camden and Newark trying to bring new life to its urban areas.

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I once considered a visit to Asbury Park. I had wanted to stay at the old Berkeley Carteret Hotel. Unfortunately, the prices they were asking weren't in line with the product I saw on the internet. Has the place improved in the last year? It's a grand old hotel. Maybe it just needs better management and a new infusion of capital. I'd still like to visit Asbury Park. By the way, they have a very distinctive Howard Johnson's building there- a unique piece of Googie architecture on the beach front. What has happened to it? I hope that Asbury Park will see the rejuvenation it deserves.

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Strange as this may sound, I actually think the decaying buildings (convention hall, etc) on the boardwalk are beautiful in their current state. Walking through you're reminded of the age Asbury Park was filled with wealthy visitors carrying parasols. I don't know whether it's because you have to use your imagination or because the simple potential you know the place has is what's so attractive, but I find so much beauty in the chipping paint and trees growing through the roof. Call me crazy.

I do hope for Asbury Park's recovery. There's a lot of potential for it to clean up and be better linked to neighboring towns such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, etc.

BTW, BEST ITALIAN ICE EVER is from the white truck that parks along the boardwalk near the pavilion in Ocean Grove. I got the mango & green apple ice. ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!!! Better than any ice I've ever had. :wub:

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its the Weezer Italian Ice truck.

BTW, BEST ITALIAN ICE EVER is from the white truck that parks along the boardwalk near the pavilion in Ocean Grove. I got the mango & green apple ice. ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!!! Better than any ice I've ever had. :wub:

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