By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
Festival Plaza along Ocean Ave. BY MARY FRANK/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
LONG BRANCH — Crack houses, a rat-infested water slide and boarded up arcades. This was the setting where the Pier Village retail and residential complex was built in a city that had endured decades of decline.
And while the complex — the first to be built in the most recent spate of oceanfront redevelopment projects — is readied for its third and final stage, the community last week observed the fifth anniversary of the first phase with nary a hiccup.
Nonetheless, the impact on the city has been substantial, and officials foresee Phase 3 providing additional, significant benefits.
Merchants and city leaders say Pier Village has succeeded in extending the city’s tourism season, part of a long-term plan to shift the local economy to a year-round one. It is also credited with sharply increasing beach revenues, from $200,000 before Pier Village to a record-breaking $1.2 million in 2010, a figure that was surpassed this year by the end of July.
Also, the increases in tax assessments on the development property are virtually astronomical. And the jobs produced by the 13 or so restaurants, 16 boutiques, hotel and beach club has brought substantial disposable income into the city, said business leaders
“As Pier Village gets bigger, it is going to be adding assets to the city that aren’t there now,” said Mayor Adam Schneider.
“We think it has more than delivered,” said Gregory R. Russo of the Hoboken-based developer Applied Development Co.
Schneider said the final phase includes plans for adding 50 percent more retail space on the parcel that draws tourists from other parts of New Jersey and from New York and Pennsylvania. It is marketed as an upscale version of the Jersey Shore experience, complete with a luxury hotel and gourmet restaurants.
But Pier Village also contains very basic eateries like a pizza parlor and a hot dog stand; supporters say the mixture of price points allows the complex to be accessible to people with varying incomes.
“In this one little area, there was so much to do. I also felt safe because you didn’t have to go miles away” to eat or shop, said Reve Anderko. “Everything was right outside your front door.”
Anderko came from Bethlehem, Pa., two years ago to take a job in the area and thought Pier Village was about as good as it got in terms of area rentals.
She also supports the conceptual plan for Phase 3, noting her apartment often plays host to family visitors, particularly in the summer.
Pier Village Phase 3 is planned as a “family-friendly” area that will house a carousel, possibly miniature golf and some sort of arcade operation similar to the restaurants that also offer games and entertainment.
“It would make sense and it would definitely fit in an area such as this,” said Anderko, adding that she likes the city’s plan to rebuild its oceanfront pier as well.
Pier Village stands as a beacon to other potential investors, Schneider said.
“It sends a message that even in a tough economy, Long Branch is still a place where work is going on,” said Schneider.
While officials proceed with redevelopment plans, they acknowledge they are not likely to see developers coming in to do major projects any longer. In the wake of the eminent domain backlash, developers would have more difficulty and likely more expense assembling large pieces of property for redevelopment.
Brendan Ward, 27, has lived at Pier Village for about a year. A runner, he works part-time at The Sneaker Factory as he works toward a graduate degree in social work.
Ward said that even though it is often seen as a haven for upscale boutiques, he finds a sense of community there, among the residents and those who work in the shops.
But it is not perfect.
“There is that sense of community, but sometimes it feels like a bubble,” said Ward. “If there was one thing I would wish for, it would be to alleviate that bubble” and find a way to spread a Pier Village combination of community and retail success into the city’s downtown and along Broadway, he said.
In 2006, Pier Village received the project of the year award from the Urban Land Institute. In 2007, it was named one of 20 great American beaches by Travel & Leisure Magazine and in 2009, it received the governor’s tourism award.
Melanie Rowbotham, 21, a Monmouth University senior who hails from Sussex County, won the on-campus lottery that helps decide which students will be eligible to live in some of the 30 or so units the school reserves at Pier Village.
The English/elementary education major stayed there with three roommates her junior year as well and took advantage of her 11-month lease to spend the summer at the beach. Not a bad arrangement, she said, laughing.
She is thinking of staying at Pier Village if she gets a job in the region. Right now, she doesn’t even mind paying the extra money for the nearly-year round access to the beach, the ocean and the complex pool.
“It’s summer on the beach. It is definitely worth it,” she said.
Pier Village is not without its detractors. There have been objections to the use of eminent domain for the project and complaints of more traffic.
Monmouth University Professor John Buzza, a business instructor who monitors the local hospitality industry, said the development still is too costly for locals to embrace, although it has helped the city recover.
“I think Pier Village is a godsend and people are looking to emulate it in all these urban areas,” Buzza added.
“Before Pier Village came in, I thought it was a great idea,” said Dennis Sherman, who heads Save Ocean Avenue, a group whose goal is to ensure that other areas of the oceanfront and boardwalk are not ignored. “It would go a long way toward improving conditions in the area, and it did.”
However, as an economic engine, it has been a disappointment, he said.
“The tax-abatement program, we thought it would help taxes go down, and taxes went up,” said Sherman.
Esther Cohen, president of the Greater Long Branch Chamber of Commerce, believes Pier Village has produced an eight-month tourism season.
“Look at Deal, Allenhurst, Loch Arbor or Long Beach Island in October: The (traffic) lights are blinking yellow,” she said.
Not so in Long Branch, where if visitors didn’t know about Pier Village when they arrived, they discover it before they leave.
“It is a destination within a destination and in creating that destination … They also recreated the destination of Long Branch,” Cohen said.
PIER VILLAGE PHASE 3
The project, which already has received site-plan approval from the city Planning Board and approval from the City Council, acting as the city’s Redevelopment Agency, includes space for a second, larger hotel, condominiums and 40,000 square feet of retail space, said developer Gregory R. Russo.
Infrastructure improvements, roadwork and utilities, for example, should begin this fall, continue until the start of the 2012 summer season, and resume the following fall for partial occupancy by Memorial Day 2013.
Phase 3 is intended to be “family-friendly,” with a carousel, possible miniature golf course and some form of arcade.
Developers also proposed an enlargement and expansion of the boardwalk in certain areas to give shoppers the sense that they are actually on the boards, when they make their purchases, recalling more traditional boardwalk set-ups.
Tax assessments on the Pier Village property totaled $6.67 million in 2005, before construction started.
In 2007, the land and the improvements were assessed at $84.4 million. That same year, Pier Village paid $485,818 in taxes, an abated figure. By 2011, the project was subject to full taxes, except for the Sirena and Avenue restaurants, which become eligible in 2012. Officials are considering whether Phase 3 will receive a tax abatement.
Phase 1: 320 rental apartments and 100,000 square feet of retail space; occupancy complete in August 2006.
Phase 2: 216 apartments, 1,800 square feet of retail and a 24-unit hotel; construction completed in 12 months with the hotel called The Bungalow opening in 2009.
Phase 3: 70-room hotel, 320 condominiums and 40,000-square feet of retail; to be ready by Memorial Day 2013. No construction planned for summer 2012 season.