Long Branch, N.J., Development Hums Along Despite Past Controversies

Several projects slated to open in beach town that birthed Springsteen within the next few years

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Ulysses S. Grant had his “summer White House” there throughout his presidency. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” at a cottage there in 1974. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky once referred to it as the place where “all my poems are about.” 

Long Branch, N.J., has had many lives over its 150-year history — and the past few years have brought another one in the form of a wave of commercial redevelopment. The city of 32,000 joins other historic Jersey Shore communities like Asbury Park and Wildwood in a building spree, one that followed the destruction wrought by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Hundreds of apartments and condos are going up at once, along with retail space and other property. 

SEE ALSO: ‘The Backstory’: Commercial Real Estate’s Turnover

Take the Atlantic Club, a new luxury condo property approved by Long Branch’s Planning Board earlier this year. Once the site of Seaview Towers, twin apartment buildings demolished in 2020 after sitting vacant for 15 years, the Atlantic Club will feature 75,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor amenities, and will charge between $1.12 million and more than $5.95 million for one of its 132 units.

The project, developed by owners from New York’s Stillman Development International, Gotham City Real Estate and New Jersey’s Surrey Equities, is targeting completion for late 2025.

Roy Stillman, president of Stillman Development, said the project’s design philosophy is a melding of art and commerce. Stillman tapped famed design gallery owner Cristina Grajales to curate a “gallery aesthetic” throughout the development.

“The big theme here is the convergence of art and business as the secret formula for letting everybody win. The more expansive the list of winners, the better project you have,” Stillman said. “Our winners are both people that don’t live in the building and people that will live in the building, as they get to consume this level of artistic inspiration and work and execution that would otherwise not be available to them.”

390 Ocean 1 credit Williams New York WEB Long Branch, N.J., Development Hums Along Despite Past Controversies
390 Ocean Avenue. PHOTO: Williams New York

There’s also the three-story, mixed-use building going up just a few blocks south at 665 Second Avenue. Developed by Inspired by Somerset Development, a firm based in neighboring Holmdel, the property will yield 22 units and 800 feet of ground-floor retail once it opens next year.  

Yet the land that the still-nameless building sits on contains far more sentimental value than it may first appear. It was the former site of the Inkwell Coffee House, a beloved local joint built in the 1960s and frequented by the likes of actor/director Kevin Smith, as well as a young Springsteen, who was born in Long Branch. Inkwell owner Anthony Esposito announced the closure in spring 2022.

Although the new building replacing it will feature a more contemporary aesthetic, Ken Gold, vice president of acquisitions and development for Somerset, said the developers have kept Inkwell’s legacy top of mind.

“We were very aware of the location and the importance of the Inkwell and the history to the Long Branch community, and that is something that has always been at the forefront of our thoughts with the redevelopment,” Gold said. “Working with the town and planners to really restore that space to the expectations of the market is really important to us, and making sure we pay homage and tribute to what got it there. The building has been demolished, but we definitely kept some things from the Inkwell — signs, banners, that sort of stuff — and we’re working on keeping the history alive.”

Much to the dismay of this reporter, Springsteen could not be reached for comment. 

Further north, at 20 Third Avenue, Hoboken-based private real estate company Prime City is constructing its own four-story, mixed-use building, dubbed SICA Lofts. The development will feature 31 apartments and 2,500 square feet of ground-floor retail, part of which will be leased back to the city for the creation of a new community and cultural arts center. 

The leaseback pays homage to the lot’s history as the former site of the Lincoln Can Manufacturing Company and later the Shore Institute of Contemporary Arts (or SICA — hence the new name). 

Then there’s Pier Village — the sprawling oceanfront, mixed-use community on Chelsea Avenue about a quarter mile away from SICA Lofts. Kushner Companies and partner Extell Development purchased Pier Village from Ironstate Development back in 2014, and Extell sold its stake to Kushner in 2020.

Since opening in 2005, Pier Village has slowly expanded over the years and today includes 500 apartments, 250 condos, a hotel (with a second one in development) and a vast array of dining, retail and entertainment spaces — though the property has a rocky history. The troubles began in 1987 when a fire destroyed Long Branch Pier, built in the 1910s on the land Pier Village now occupies, taking out an amusement park, storefronts and the locally famous, 10,000-square-foot “Haunted Mansion” along with it. The ruins sat untouched for well over a decade until cleared in 2001.

In 1996, the city and its mayor at the time, Adam Schneider, launched the Long Branch Redevelopment Plan, which laid out criteria for overhauling five sectors in the beach town. The city controversially used eminent domain to buy out local homeowners, in an effort to assemble the parcel that would eventually become Pier Village.

The city’s application of eminent domain, historically used by governments to repossess desolate private property for the sake of public use, was a “public relations disaster,” according to the The New York Times in 2004, and resulted in a number of homeowners fighting back to keep their land.

The city ultimately settled with those homeowners in 2009 after years of litigation, and ended its use of eminent domain to acquire beachfront homes for redevelopment soon after.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy. People who have lived here for a long time, especially the ones who made it through eminent domain, are sort of bitter about what’s happening. They feel that [Long Branch] is no longer the city they grew up in, that everything’s changing,” said Michele Irizarry, a local residential real estate broker. “Yet new people coming in think that Long Branch is amazing. So there’s a bit of a divide between older residents and newer residents.”

Meanwhile, plans by Kushner to redevelop two blocks of barren land in Long Branch’s lower Broadway area were approved by the city’s Planning Board earlier this summer. (Nicole Kushner Meyer, a principal at Kushner Companies, is married to Joseph Meyer, chairman of CO owner Observer Media.) 

The project had for years resided in a financial and litigative swamp. Long Branch Partners, an affiliate of Montville, N.J.-based Diversified Realty Advisors, acquired some 50 properties in the area in 2014, with the intention of investing nearly $200 million to build new commercial and retail properties along Long Branch’s main drag, and spent the better part of 2017 demolishing them for that very purpose. Yet the firm ultimately sold the properties to Kushner after years of legal seesawing between the two developers and the city. 

Kushner now plans to build nearly 300 apartments, new retail spaces, a cafe and a grocery store on the properties. Michael Sommer, Kushner’s chief development officer, told the Asbury Park Press in July that construction could break ground before the end of the year. 

“The lower Broadway project, seen as an extension of the vibrant Pier Village community, is a crucial step in revitalizing the downtown area,” Kushner Meyer said. “The focus is not just on residential development but also on bridging the downtown to the waterfront, with the addition of a supermarket to serve the year-round community. This project is envisioned as a lynchpin in connecting the two.”