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For many years, Upper West Side resident Lee Weiskott and his husband vacationed in East Hampton, spending their weekends at a contemporary home they owned on Abrahams Path. But it only took one weekend last year in Asbury Park to up-end what was more than a decade’s long tradition. “On Monday I called my broker and said, ‘There’s a contract I want to sign in New Jersey, let’s get this [Hamptons] property sold.’”
Weiskott is from New Jersey and has family in the area, but he was also tired of the three hour-long commute to the Hamptons. And then there’s all the changes going on in Asbury Park.
A historic seashore town an hour and a half by car from New York City, Asbury Park is in the midst of a major renaissance. Once dubbed the “Jewel of the Jersey Shore” it began as a resort community in the late 1800s and continued to attract well-heeled travelers throughout the first half of the 20th century. Suburbanization and major riots during the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s degraded the area, and it fell nearly completely off the vacation circuit radar. Until the early 2000s, the majority of business in downtown sat boarded up. For years, the unemployment rate has sat roughly 3 to 4 percent above the national average, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
iStar, a company that finances, invests in, and develops real estate, headed by Texas wunderkind Jay Sugarman (also of the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island), started purchasing land in Asbury Park for redevelopment in 2002. By 2010, iStar accepted the role of Master Developer, assembling a total of 35 acres for redevelopment in the area. Many blighted buildings have already been demolished and 20 projects are completed or on the way, including Monroe—the luxury condominium building that swayed Weiskott and his partner, and others like them, to give up on the Hamptons—and the Asbury, the city’s first hotel in 50 years.
The 110-room boutique hotel, opened Memorial Day Weekend 2016 in a once derelict Salvation Army building, is a veritable party pad, with a rooftop bar, an outdoor pool, a lobby bar, and a 4,300-square-foot outdoor space with panoramic ocean views and room for morning yoga and nighttime movie screenings. Homes at Monroe fall somewhere between urban lofts and beach bungalows. They have large terraces with outdoor fireplaces and sleek kitchens with Corian countertops and Molteni cabinets, German Hansgrohe fixtures, and amenities like a doorman and concierge services. Chad Oppenheim, the architect largely credited with reshaping South Beach with high-concept apartment buildings, designed the complex, which opens this summer.
This isn’t the first attempt to bring Asbury Park back to life. Others have tried and failed to revitalize the area in the past, including a Connecticut developer in the 1980s. The city also promised major renewal in the early 2000s, but it sputtered during the recession. Nowhere are these dashed hopes more apparent than a block away from the Asbury, where the foundations of a concrete building abandoned by two previous developers remain a major eyesore.
But iStar has plans for this site, too. It will become 1101 Ocean a luxury boutique hotel, condominium, spa, and retail project designed by Handel Architects, a firm whose other projects have included numerous Ritz-Carlton hotels and the Four Seasons Hotel & Residences in Miami Beach. When completed in a few years, the 16-story tower will be one of the tallest buildings along the Jersey Shore and a symbol, iStar hopes, of Asbury Park’s rebirth.
Anda Andrei—creative lead for the entire redevelopment project, and a talent that made her reputation as director of design for the Ian Schrager Company (the Delano Miami, London EDITION, Gramercy Park Hotel)—says the key to making the redevelopment project a success is drawing on what makes Asbury exceptional. “Many of our Main Streets [in America] have been taken over by developers, so you don’t know where you are anymore,” she says. “What I think makes things so unique in Asbury is authenticity. We don’t want to create fake history, we want to create a town for a new generation. If we can develop the town without destroying it, that’s an amazing thing.”
The look and feel of the Asbury hotel, with its nightly live music performances and extensive collection of vinyl LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs on display in the lobby cocktail bar, is inspired in part by the edgy music scene that helped launch the careers of artists like Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. (The song “My City of Ruins,” released in 2000, was reportedly written about the town.) And the wood and stone façade of the Monroe building echoes the materials found in Asbury Park’s wide boardwalk and on the classical buildings along the seashore. That the building blends in with its surroundings was a priority for Oppenheim, who grew up just 20 minutes outside of town. “It has meant a lot for me to be involved,” he says. “Asbury Park is so different from anything else in New Jersey. I always thought it could be something special.”
He’s not the only one. The vibrant city Oppenheim envisioned was beginning to take shape by the time iStar took over as the area's master developer. In 2007, the Washington, D.C.-based developer Madison Marquette was brought in to restore Asbury Park’s mile-and-a-half-long boardwalk. (The number of beachgoers has already risen in response, from 55,000 in 2008 to more than 380,000 in 2016.) The stately Convention Hall’s Grand Arcade, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now houses an artisan marketplace where visitors will find a gourmet coffee shop, oyster bar, and a boutique called the Market selling locally (and nationally) made goods. The main drag in Downtown Asbury, Cookman Avenue, is lined with a vibrant mix of restaurants, bars, and stores opened by locals and new residents from cities like Brooklyn. Pizza spot Talula’s, co-owned by Shanti Church, who honed her skills at Saltie in Williamsburg and now lives in town, says downtown Asbury was well on its way to revitalization when they opened in 2014, but since then she has seen even more growth. And there’s even more to come.
Asbury Park’s midcentury modern Fifth Avenue Pavilion and Band Shell is set to welcome spectators again in 2018 after a renovation. The first TEDx Conference (moving from its previously held locations in Red Bank and Long Branch) will take place in Asbury Park on May 20. In addition to building hotels and housing, largely for second home owners and those looking to make a permanent move from New York, iStar is investing more than $40 million in landscaping and infrastructure throughout the city as part of the company’s ten-year commitment. The company is also providing hospitality job training to locals. Sixty percent of staff at the Asbury is made up of graduates of the program.
“Asbury Park is full of young, creative and enthusiastic entrepreneurial types so the downtown business development has been happening in a way that truly reflects the spirit of this town.” Church says. “It's vibrant, unique, varied, and community driven.”
And, it’s why Asbury Park’s best days may still be ahead.
The Asbury Park Short List
The Bond Street Bar: A lovable dive that opened in 2009, the bar serves a great hamburger and an array of excellent grilled cheese sandwiches (like bacon, apple, and blue cheese). 208 Bond St.; 732-774-1575.
The Complex: The owners of Bond Street Bar (located right next door) opened this entertainment and dining hub in 2016. It includes a taqueria, an Italian comfort food restaurant, and a basement bar the length of a city block, filled with ping pong tables and a living wall. Salvaged materials from Asbury Park landmarks can be found throughout the Complex including a chandelier fashioned from an Asbury Lanes pinsetter.
Talula’s: This pizza restaurant, opened in 2014, serves perfectly blistered sourdough pies topped with fresh market ingredients like sunchokes, garlic, sunflower seeds, and micro greens grown by Kula Urban Farm. 550 Cookman Ave., No. 108; 732-455-3003; talulaspizza.com.
Cardinal Provisions: A bare-bones breakfast and lunch café, opened since 2016, serves delicious, indulgent dishes, like blueberry buttermilk silver dollar pancakes with whipped salted butter and pan-roasted organic salmon bowls with roasted squash. It also serves vegan croissants. 513 Bangs Ave.; 732-898-7194; crdnal.com.
Pascal & Sabine: This French brasserie with deep banquettes and two bars is a great choice for happy hour or a late-night cocktail. 601 Bangs Ave.; 732-774-3395; pascalandsabine.com.
Glide Surf Co.: A burgeoning surf culture is also contributing to Asbury Park’s revitalization. This highly curated surf boutique, which moved to Asbury Park in 2013, is one example of the trend. It carries high quality items like Patagonia wetsuits and handmade Ricky Muñiz boards. 520 Bangs Ave.; 732-250-6398; glidesurfco.com.
The Asbury: Opened Memorial Day weekend 2016 with a variety of spaces for public engagement, the hotel is as much a destination for visitors as it is for locals. Hotel operator David Bowd, who has managed some of the world’s sceniest hotels including Andre Balazs’ Mercer, Chateau Marmot, and the Firehouse in London, says the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant, because he wants guests to support local businesses. “I would like to see everybody more successful.” The lobby doubles as a tomato growing green house and the check in desk is also a grab-and-go counter where guests can order fresh donuts. Guestrooms have simple furnishings like macramé-backed chairs and pale wood furnishings.