Asbury Park Comes Alive!

After years of false starts, the city's redevelopment is finally riding a wave of success.

Photo by Joe Polillio

David Bowd scans the Asbury Park waterfront from the rooftop deck of the six-story Asbury Hotel. He points out the once-abandoned construction site a few blocks away. It’s now a prime example of the area’s progress.

“That’s going to be a hotel and condos,” says Bowd, who opened the Asbury Hotel in May 2016 with development partner iStar, the leading player in Asbury Park’s current construction spree.

The Asbury Hotel was last summer’s sensation, with occupancy of its 110 rooms tracking at 97 percent throughout July and August. The hotel was to close for part of the winter, but the partners decided to stay open, initially just on weekends. They wound up doing business all week. This summer, with rates starting at $245 for its smallest rooms, the Asbury is almost sold out. Even the hotel’s event rooms are booked for weddings every weekend night this summer.

Bowd, 47, is among the new investors helping burnish Asbury Park’s image as the hottest stop on the Jersey Shore. There have been spasms of redevelopment in the past, but all fell short of their original goals, always leaving the town’s prospects in doubt.

Nothing was more symbolic of Asbury Park’s frayed image than the abandoned construction site that Bowd espied from his rooftop. The hulking eyesore of concrete and steel was conceived as a 224-unit luxury condo. Its name, Esperanza, is Spanish for “hope.” But hope was lost when the developers of that project ran out of money in December 2007.

Now Bowd’s counterparts at iStar are hoping to erase such mistakes. The 16-story project they have planned for the blighted parcel, called 1101 Ocean, will include about 100 condominium apartments, 54 luxury hotel rooms, 23,000 square feet of retail space and a 415-spot parking deck. It is slated for completion in early 2019.

Across Ocean Avenue from the 1101 site, Asbury Park’s boardwalk is buzzing on this late summer afternoon. Stylish young couples of every stripe push toddlers in strollers. Beachgoers  in flip-flops sway to the sound of a local band playing outside Langosta Lounge.  Two tattooed millenials hurry by in flannel shirts and ski hats despite the summer heat. An older couple from Manalapan, dressed up for their anniversary, idles away the time before their dinner reservation at Stella Marina.

A few blocks away, on Cookman Avenue, a group of friends gathers at Belmonte’s  for half-price pasta night. Down the street, film fans exit the Showroom, an independent movie theater, and stream into Cookman Creamery for artisanal ice cream.

And so it goes in suddenly hot Asbury Park. Just a decade ago, the Monmouth County town was still known by many outsiders for its bygone glory days as a rock ’n’ roll mecca with a boardwalk. Thankfully, two iconic holdouts from the rock era—the Stone Pony and Wonder Bar—remain part of the scene.

If those clubs are throwbacks, the dining and nightlife that has blossomed in the downtown Cookman Avenue area is entirely fresh. Where empty storefronts once loomed, today boutiques, coffee houses and an ever-expanding assortment of restaurants thrive. Along with the Asbury Hotel, last summer’s biggest hit was the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten—a spin-off from Hoboken’s popular Pilsener Haus. Other newish notables include Pascal & Sabine for upscale French cuisine; Talula’s for farm-to-table pizza; Barrio Costero for creative Mexican; and an eclectic diner called Cardinal Provisions.

Bowd, who honed his hospitality chops in London and New York working for Ian Schrager, champion of high-end boutique hotels, was hooked the moment iStar introduced him to Asbury Park.

“It’s so authentic. It’s so gritty. It’s such a weird mix of everything, which appeals to me,” he says. “I love its music heritage, its art heritage, its gay heritage. Anything goes in this town, and people coexist in such a positive way.”

From the Asbury Hotel rooftop, Bowd turns west and points to a four-story building that takes up a city block. It’s going to be condos. An adjacent cluster of four-story townhomes sold out quickly, he says. Another series of townhomes a little closer to the beach sold out in a day. Bowd points north to an old bowling alley, Asbury Lanes, which he acquired with iStar. After a major renovation, it will reopen later this year as a music venue with bowling lanes.

In all, there are about 21 projects slated for completion in the next 10 years. In some cases, buildings will be razed and replaced. In others, new construction will fill the empty spaces that in recent years marred the landscape like missing teeth.

Still, you can forgive longtime locals if their optimism about the city’s future is blended with caution.

“There’s been so many false starts,” says Rich Gribble, a real estate agent at John C. Conover. “That’s been the problem with this town.”

Once known as the Jewel of the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park was a place where men in top hats and linen suits joined women with white gloves and parasols to stroll the boardwalk on a summer afternoon. The city had a grand carousel and amusement park, swan boats on Wesley Lake and some of the most dramatic seaside architecture on the East Coast. But Asbury Park began to decline after the Garden State Parkway opened in the 1950s, giving tourists easier access to the less crowded beaches farther south. In 1970, racial unrest drove out many middle-class families and left the city looking like it had been ransacked by thieves. By 2000, 30 percent of Asbury Park’s families lived below the poverty line.

Redevelopment has not been easy. Just ask Ross Blanco, 59, who in 2006 bought America’s Cup Coffee Company, a coffeehouse on Cookman Avenue. He is one of the many businesspeople, investors and home buyers who were hoping to ride the wave of the ambitious $1.25 billion beachfront redevelopment plan the city adopted in June 2002. More than a decade later, he can finally applaud the return of downtown foot traffic.

“With the addition of the new hotel and the beer garden, and all the incredible publicity iStar has managed to get for this town, interest has skyrocketed,” says Blanco. “It’s finally taken a leap. And every year now, it takes another jump.”

This round of growth is different, says city manager Michael Capabianco, because the current generation of developers—led by publicly traded, New York-based iStar—has better access to capital. “The company heading up the redevelopment this time has cash on hand, access to third-party funding and willing partners to take on risk,” says Capabianco. “It’s easier to build things when you don’t have to go out and get money from a bank. And they’ve been successfully partnering with companies like K. Hovnanian, which mitigates the risk.”

As the lead developer, iStar owns about 35 acres in the waterfront district. The company identifies its properties with surfboards indicating sites slated for redevelopment. The city owns the beach and boardwalk, but since 2007, developer Madison Marquette has overseen the development of the boardwalk pavilions.

Downtown development is more piecemeal. One of the biggest property owners, New York developer Sackman Enterprises, owns 550 Cookman Avenue, a block-long building that has been restored with 31 luxury apartments and eight stores. The ubiquitous iStar owns 70 percent of the developable waterfront property.

iStar made its big splash last Memorial Day weekend with the unveiling of the Asbury, the city’s first new hotel in 50 years. The $50 million project transformed a seven-story Salvation Army hospice that had been vacant since 2004 into a 110-room boutique hotel. Ten rooms have hostel-style wooden bunk beds; others are suites. Crowds are drawn to its assortment of public spaces, including the lobby bar, with its wall of vinyl records and cassettes and occasional live performances, and the two rooftop decks, one an outdoor movie theater and the other a lounge nostalgically called Salvation. In the winter, the hotel staged a Christmas market, created an ice rink and served hot chocolate.

“The worst thing that could have happened would have been a Ritz Carlton or a branded Hilton,” says Bowd. “I wanted something that was truly connected to the neighborhood.”

Indeed, the Asbury has no doorman. It sells local confections and beverages in the lobby. It even allows dogs, though it charges $75 for the privilege. Half the doggie revenue is donated to Rescue Ridge, a local pet charity.

The Asbury employs locals as much as possible. When management couldn’t find enough people with experience, the hotel started a hospitality school. Some 400 application letters came in over two weeks.

“We had a lot of crying with those letters,” says Bowd. “There were people out of work for 20 years, and they wanted a career change. There were people who had lost their parents or children to drugs. You realize the challenges of Asbury, what people face.” About 150 hopefuls were admitted to the program, ranging in age from 15 to 64. In the end, about 75 were hired.

The hotel kicked off with a boom. “We had 12,000 people come through the hotel [for the opening] weekend,” says Bowd. “It was crazy in here.” Bowd says many hotel guests are 20- to 40- year-olds from all over Jersey, Philadelphia and New York. “The person that’s now coming to this hotel wasn’t coming to Asbury Park [before we opened]. We wanted to create something that would bring people into Asbury Park.”

So far, so good. “Everyone I’ve spoken to, the owners of local bars, the owners of local restaurants, they all say they had a great summer,” says Bowd, referring to last year’s high season.

The owners of the new Festhalle, which cost $3 million-plus to construct, would second that emotion. On busy weekend nights, the 18,000-square-foot restaurant is packed with as many as 700 patrons sitting at long communal tables in the beer hall or on the roof deck, eating Eastern European-style food and enjoying the 41 beers in bottles and 70 on tap.

“It’s done better than we thought,” says co-owner Jaro Marcin, 46.

Restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach, a pioneer of the Asbury Park turnaround, agrees the announcement of the Asbury Hotel project was a game changer.
“People were intimidated to come in because prior investments hadn’t succeeded,” says Schlossbach, who owns Langosta Lounge, Pop’s Garage and the Asbury Park Yacht Club on the boardwalk. “Having iStar make a strong foothold with the Asbury Hotel gave people confidence.”

Nowadays, says Schlossbach, the waterfront bustles every weekend in the warm months, the music venues put on great shows and the restaurants and shops attract all kinds of visitors. In fact, business may be too good. Parking and traffic are the new headaches.

The city is addressing such issues with updated traffic lights, improved sewer lines and a new transportation planner to work on the parking problem. Bike-share programs are to be implemented in much of the town this fall.

“As we continue to flourish and revitalize, we are trying to find the best way to manage it,” says Capabianco.

As commerce has flourished, so too has the local housing market. In the mid-2000s, two condominium projects by major developers brought in by Asbury Partners were built within the redevelopment area, just blocks from the ocean: Wesley Grove, a 146-unit townhouse complex on the southern end of town along Wesley Lake, which was built by Westminster Management, the home-building arm of Kushner Companies; and the North Beach project, comprising 156 units at the northern end of the redevelopment area that were built by Paramount Homes. Sales at North Beach were slowed by the recession of 2008, but the last unit was finally sold last year.

More recently, iStar’s 28-unit complex a block from the beach, called Vive, and K. Hovnanian’s 28-unit South Grand, on the corner of Grand and Monroe, both sold out quickly. The units range from 2,200 to 3,000 square feet and have multiple porches and balconies, roof decks and two-car garages.

“Those townhomes sold out in a day, and we had more than 600 buyers on the interest list,” says Brian Cheripka, a senior vice president of land and development at iStar. He says the average price of a townhouse at Vive was just under $500,000; less than two years later, similarly sized units at South Grand went for $600,000. And one of the original owners in Vive who bought at $488,000 recently sold for $840,000.

The Monroe, iStar’s 34-unit condominium adjacent to South Grand, is slated for Memorial Day completion. The units range from one-, two- and three- bedroom apartments to a pair of penthouses priced at $1.2 million each.

Demand for housing is great, says realty agent Gribble, in part because existing homeowners aren’t selling. “There’s nothing much to buy here right now, and a lot of people want to be here. It gets busier and busier each year.”

The housing turnaround started about 20 years ago with an influx of gay homebuyers, followed by millenials attracted by Asbury Park’s gritty feel, music scene and proximity to the ocean. Today, the city is attracting more mainstream suburbanites, from 30-somethings to empty nesters.

“I’m seeing more and more of them,” Gribble says of the older crowd. “Maybe they know people here; they want to be in a downtown area, a city environment where you can walk around and grab a drink and dinner and see a show. It’s more lively.”

The downside? Taxes. Gribble says his property taxes went up $4,600 this year alone, following a reassessment. He now pays just under $15,000 in taxes for his two-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot condo.

While most of the development has occurred on the beach side of Main Street (Route 71), even parts of the city’s West Side have seen an increase in home values. Dating to Asbury Park’s days as a segregated city, the West Side was traditionally the African-American section of the city. Now its desirable, tree-lined streets are benefitting from the growing demand for homes, while government-funded housing projects lift the more blighted areas.

New developments planned for the West Side include the Renaissance Village, a 64-unit residential/retail complex, and the federally subsidized Asbury Park Housing Authority Boston Way Project.

Other signs of West Side revitalization:  a new $1.3 million park on Springwood Avenue where weekly music concerts are held all summer; a $500,000 HUD grant for the nearby Lincoln Village public housing project; and the Turf Club, a new rental property from Interfaith Neighbors, a group of congregations working together since 1988 to address homelessness. Two more new residential buildings on Memorial Drive near the train station will cater to artists’ needs. One will have an art gallery and a café with outdoor seating.

Capabianco, who became Asbury Park’s city manager a year and a half ago after serving as borough administrator in Little Ferry, acknowledges development in town favors the oceanfront.

“Development happens where the demand is,” he says. “We can only hope to inch along by making sure zoning is good—and protect the interest of the city while protecting the pockets of investors.”

This time around, the formula seems to be working.

Caren Chesler is an Ocean Grove-based contributor.

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