Destination: Belmar

Living down its past, a longtime Shore favorite puts on a family-friendly face.

Belmar Beach
The beach in Belmar.
Photo by Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty is determined to make the best of a bad situation. On October 29, Hurricane Sandy destroyed Belmar’s beachfront and flooded its streets; but in the aftermath the borough seized the chance to accelerate a transformation it has been working on for years.

“When people come to Belmar this summer, it will be different,” says Doherty. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity.”

For at least a decade, Belmar, long known as a party town, has been trying to reposition itself as a family-friendly destination. This summer, visitors will be greeted by a new $8 million boardwalk. Sandy washed away the old one. By summer 2014, the boardwalk should feature new pavilions with modern conveniences and a more consistent look. The old pavilions—all damaged beyond repair in the storm—were a hodgepodge of structures of various vintages; one was built in 1929.

The borough can already claim a burgeoning restaurant scene, an upgraded marina and a new miniature golf course. More parks are in the works.

“Belmar still has the ghosts that haunt us, but we’re headed in the right direction,” says the 39-year-old mayor, who took office in January 2011.

Although Sandy battered its waterfront, Belmar escaped much of the damage that devastated nearby towns. No homes were knocked from their foundations; even the marina, with more than 100 boat slips, was largely unharmed. But Sandy flooded 75 percent of Belmar—including homes and businesses. It took nearly a week just to get the water off the streets. Damage is estimated at $130 million.

Marty and Joyce Riccio, who operate the Saltwater Inn at 10th Avenue and B Street, were among the lucky. They evacuated the night of the storm and returned the next morning to find the inn high and dry. “The water stopped five feet from our back door,” says Marty, who later learned that the inn—which is also the couple’s home—occupies one of the highest elevations in town.

The Riccios are among the entrepreneurs who are helping put a new face on Belmar. Two winters ago they made a significant investment, purchasing and renovating the inn—one of three Belmar bed and breakfasts refurbished pre-Sandy.

“I see tremendous potential here,” says Riccio. “Belmar is well on its way to moving away from that summer-rental, crazy-party type town to becoming one of the great Jersey Shore towns. The marina is great, the beach is great, the restaurants are great, and there are quite a few decent places to stay now.”

At just 1.7 square miles, Belmar is awash in contrast—tensions, too. Owners of the tony summer homes in the north end of town occasionally clash with renters summering in the town’s more modest section south of 10th Avenue. Generally, the issue is noise.

Alice Farr-Leonard, a realtor at Century 21 Schlossbach Realty, cites an instance when a seasonal renter was ticketed for playing music through speakers pointed out a window. Farr-Leonard and other agents encourage summer renters to read the code-enforcement section of the Belmar website to avoid the triggers that prompt visits from the police.

Donna Volker, 44, has lived in town for 25 years and knows both sides of the story. She fondly remembers Belmar’s heyday as a party town. “But when you’re raising a family, it’s very different,” she says. Volker helps her father run the Inn at the Shore, one of the town’s most eye-catching Victorians.

Lately, the demographic boundaries have been breached. On 13th Avenue, in the south end, a $1.6 million, three-story home has been built on the site of what was once a smaller home. Across the street, a one-story bungalow still caters to college kids. The pattern is repeated on other Belmar streets, including Ocean Avenue and 14th Avenue.

The new million-dollar homes aren’t wholly embraced—even by the mayor. “Some of the bungalows and smaller houses maintain the middle-class character of Belmar,” Doherty says. “We’re not looking for McMansions here, though we do appreciate improvements to property.”

Belmar has long been a magnet for partiers. In the 1980s, the raucous scene centered on a cluster of bars within a block of the beach at the south end, including the infamous D’Jais, the only one still going strong. By some estimates, as many as 1,300 houses were available as cheap summer rentals. Groups of 20-somethings grabbed shares and packed them solid. One of the rare and valuable spots for a restaurant on the beachfront, the 13th Avenue Pavilion, was home to a McDonald’s.

“It was wild. Belmar was a wide-open town for kids to come and party,” says Kenneth Pringle, Belmar’s mayor from 1990 to 2010. Many visitors got out of hand. “Even the swings at the beach were all broken,” Pringle recalls. During his tenure, the town started to crack down on boisterous revelers and the owners of the homes they rented.

To reign in the unruly, the town took advantage of the state’s so-called Animal House statutes, passed in 1993, which fine landlords who repeatedly rent to anyone convicted of quality-of-life violations, such as excessive noise, fighting or disorderly conduct. A local noise ordinance was passed in 1991, and town officials placed sheriff’s officers outside rowdy homes every weekend and tightened property-maintenance codes.

“It had an enormous impact on changing the quality of life in these neighborhoods,” says Pringle.
Adding police officers on bicycles also helped contain rowdiness. This summer, Belmar will have even more officers on bikes, says Doherty.

Over time, the number of summer rentals has decreased significantly, to only about 300 in 2010. Some cheap bungalows are still available, mainly on 13th and 14th avenues, but most of today’s rentals are nicer, refurbished houses, Farr-Leonard says. Prices start at about $7,000 for the season for a one-bedroom house; at press time, a four-bedroom rental with a pool was being offered for $59,000 for the season, or $7,000 for a summer week.

A strong market for Shore property sales also has helped reduce the number of rental houses, says real estate agent Tom MacGowan of the MacGowan Agency in Belmar. Many owners took advantage of rising home prices and put their rental properties on the market. People bought up ramshackle houses near the beach for a song, renovated them, or tore them down and built larger homes.

Kathy Corless, a realtor from Oradell who has frequented Belmar since her college days, likes the changes she observed on a visit this spring. “It’s just amazing to see how the old boarding houses have been restored,” she says. “They’re single-family homes now. It’s wonderful to see that.”

While most locals applauded Pringle for his mayoral leadership, his brashness at times embarrassed the town. A newsletter he distributed in 2008 referred insultingly to blondes, women from Staten Island and “guidos” who called Belmar their summer home. He described the speech pattern of the latter as “frequently slurred, invariably starting with the sound yo, followed all too often by some creative variation on an expletive.”

Pringle says he intended the newsletter—which attracted national attention—to help summer renters understand what was expected of them. He claims visitors modified their behavior as a result.
“People in the community understood exactly what I was doing,” he says. “I was trying to communicate in a way that these kids would read what I wrote.”

Pringle chose not to run for reelection in 2010. Doherty, his successor, has continued his work—albeit with less controversy. He is trying to strike a balance. For example, there are still about 10 bars in town, but D’Jais is the only one on the beachfront (it’s been there since 1959).

“We still want this to be a fun town,” says Doherty. “We just expect people to be responsible drinkers.”
Even as Belmar changes, the volume of visitors seems to stay the same. The off-season population of 5,800 typically swells to 60,000 on summer weekends, the mayor says.

Like nearby towns, Belmar tries to draw families to its wide beaches with special events such as an annual seafood festival (to be held this year June 7 to 9), 5K runs, volleyball tournaments, a triathlon and free movies on the beach. There are military appreciation days and surfers’ healing days, when surfers work with autistic kids and adults and get them on a board. A perennial favorite, the Sand Castle Contest, takes place this year on July 17.

With its large community of Irish residents, Belmar boasts the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in New Jersey. As of the 2000 Census, about 19.3 percent of the population was Irish. (Belmar is sometimes called the Irish Riviera for the immigrants who began summering there early in the 20th century; many eventually retired to Belmar.)

Doherty says the town has eight free playgrounds—more than any nearby town, he claims—and one of the most affordable beaches: A daily pass is $7, with kids under age 12 free. Parking on the beach side of Ocean Avenue costs 50 cents an hour; all other on-street parking is free. While there are no big amusement parks to draw families, as at nearby Point Pleasant Beach, Doherty says the affordability and accessibility of the beach has always attracted middle-class families.

So far, this summer’s rental market has been great, says Farr-Leonard. Houses are being snapped up, she says, though some were still available at press time.

For those looking to buy, Sandy may have created some bargains. On Trulia, a real estate website, the prices of several Belmar listings have dropped significantly in recent months. A four-bedroom home on Surf Avenue, for example, was reduced $100,000 in March to $595,000.

That doesn’t undermine Doherty’s faith in Belmar’s charms. “How many places are there where you can [afford to] live four blocks from the Atlantic Ocean?” he asks. “We’re so lucky to live in a place where our kids can ride their bikes with their friends, go to the candy store, and be safe.”

Stephanie Devine, of Manalapan, has been making day trips to Belmar for the past 30 years. She likes the beach because it is clean and wide, and the badges are reasonably priced.

“When the kids were still in high school, we could drop them off at the 16th and 17th Avenue beaches to have fun, while we went to the quieter parts of the beach,” she says. “I’m very comfortable here. It’s gotten us through many years as a family.”

Sandy interrupted, but hasn’t derailed, the slow transformation of the beachfront. The McDonald’s was replaced in 2001 by Matisse, a full-service seafood restaurant. Jake’s Crab Shack raised the bar for casual dining on the boardwalk. Both are gone for now, victims of Sandy, along with the oceanfront pavilions and the lemon-shaped lemonade stand that puckered up beside the Crab Shack. (The town is installing beachfront trailers with public bathrooms this summer until the pavilions can be replaced.)

Over the years, more restaurants have opened, replacing the fast-food joints that once held sway. These range from upscale, casual restaurants like Brandl and La Dolce Vita to family-fun places like 10th Ave Burrito Co., which was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Klein’s Fish Market remains a popular eatery.

Even once-dreary Main Street has perked up, with a new $12 million building at 8th Avenue—Belmar’s largest private investment to date. Completed in 2012, the building houses a hair salon, office space and luxury condos. Down the street at 10th and Main are the upscale eateries Nicchio Ristorante and Tulipano’s.

Chris Brandl’s eponymous restaurant, Brandl, serving contemporary American cuisine, is nearby on Ninth Avenue. Brandl, who lives in Belmar with his family, is thrilled with the changes he sees. “I love that it’s a melting pot here,” he says. “You have the beach, the marina, any kind of cuisine, fast food, fine dining. It’s a great place to live.”

Belmar’s new 1.3-mile boardwalk, due for completion by Memorial Day weekend, is an upgrade on several fronts. In the past, only a few of the boardwalk’s 20 beach entrances were accessible for the disabled; now all of them will be handicapped accessible. It is being built to withstand fierce storms. New wooden pilings will be driven 25 feet deep to hold the boardwalk in place. Some of the previous pilings reached only eight feet into the sand.

But Belmar’s waterfront is not confined to the ocean. The borough is bordered on the north by the Shark River Inlet and on the west by the Shark River. The municipally owned marina on the river is another hot zone for reinvention. A new marina restaurant, the 9th Ave Pier, opened last year on a pier that was formerly in ruins. A public-private partnership between the borough and Chefs International, the restaurant has an outdoor tiki bar, Adirondack chairs and sunset views to be enjoyed while dining on coconut shrimp and steamers.

As part of its development deal, Chefs International built a miniature golf course at the marina. “We wanted to do something for the families and kids,” says Doherty. “Mini golf is part of the Jersey Shore experience.”
Next on the agenda is the demolition of a low-slung brick building at the marina, near the tiki bar, that now houses a bait-and-tackle shop. It will be torn down later this year to make way for a privately funded, $6 million building that will house two restaurants.

The borough also built a new boat launch at the marina and will begin charging for access this summer—another new revenue source. There are also plans to build an ice skating rink and roller hockey rink at Dempsey Park several blocks away.

Doherty, who works as a financial planner, says the new projects will add about $240,000 a year in tax revenue for the town, including $120,000 from the new marina building.

While the town will miss income this summer from leases on the beachfront pavilions and has had to absorb some of the expense of rebuilding after the storm, Doherty does not anticipate a municipal tax increase this year. The town even held the line on beach-badge prices.

As for the new boardwalk, Doherty expects FEMA to cover about 75 percent of the cost. Revenue from the new developments and a bond issue are expected to cover the rest. A campaign inviting supporters to “Buy a Board” raised more than $570,000 to help offset the town’s share of the burden.

Jim Bean, a Republican on the town council, has butted heads with Doherty, a Democrat, over post-Sandy recovery. He claims the town is moving too fast and opposes taking on new debt to fund redevelopment.
Bean, who has lived in town for 14 years, also questions the mayor’s plan to designate the boardwalk as an area of redevelopment. Bean asserts that, under state rules, the redesignation could allow for new liquor licenses and more bars on the boardwalk. Doherty disputes this, saying the town will allow one beachfront restaurant to have a liquor license.

Another Republican, Volker, of the Inn at the Shore, supports the mayor. “I’d say that 99 percent of the people in town are incredibly happy with the way the town is going,” she says. “We’re all really excited about what the mayor and council are doing.”

The next big development target is the area near River Road and Sixth Avenue, along the Shark River north of the marina. The owners of a building behind Klein’s seafood restaurant want to renovate the site, with retail on the first floor and condos on the second floor. The project could break ground this year.
The refurbished bed-and-breakfasts are another positive sign for a town that has long lacked resort-style hotels of note.

The Riccios opened the Saltwater Inn in May 2012 after several months of renovation. Jersey City native Marty Riccio, a retired chiropractor, says the Saltwater’s business in 2012 was “phenomenal, better than we expected.” He believes this summer will be even busier.

Located two blocks from the beach on a quiet residential street, the inn (formerly the Bellport Inn) has eight suites for couples, as well as a family suite with four bedrooms and a living room. Gourmet breakfasts (including herbed quiche made with herbs from Joyce Riccio’s garden) are served on wicker furniture on the pleasant wraparound porch. Guests can sign up for massages.

The Saltwater is just down the street from the Tandem Bike Inn, another newly refurbished bed-and-breakfast. Also nearby, at 10th Avenue and E Street, the Belmar Public Library displays its 8-foot replica of Bruce Springsteen’s Fender Esquire guitar. The E Street band once practiced in the basement of a nearby home owned by former band member David Sancious. Many believe the Springsteen song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” refers to this street.

The mix of architecture in town is another attraction. Belmar has Victorians that date to 1880, as well as colonials and Mediterranean-style homes.

Certain very modern residences that don’t fit earlier architectural themes give the mayor pause. “You wonder what the heck were they thinking?” he asks. Then there are the multimillion dollar mansions going up on the beachfront and along the Shark River Inlet. Recently, a parcel of land on the inlet that is surrounded by water on three sides sold for $2.6 million, a record for the town. A single home will be erected on the site.

“We like that there’s a mix in town, and we really want to keep it affordable,” Doherty says. “The challenge is to make improvements to the town without pricing out middle-class families.”

Can a gussied-up Belmar succeed with its transformation? So far, the post-Sandy signs are good. By mid-April, work on the boardwalk was on target for summer completion, and sales of beach badges had surpassed last year’s by 47 percent.

Click on the links below to read more Belmar stories:

Family-Friendly B&Bs Blossom in Belmar
A new crop of B&Bs pop up in Belmar.

Cooking Up a Scene in Belmar
Belmar’s happening dining scene.

New Jersey native Jacqueline Mroz grew up visiting the Shore every summer. She still enjoys scouring the beaches for sea glass with her sons.

Click here to read more Shore stories.


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