Tuesday, October 26, 2021

BACKGROUNDER: Oceanfront Landmarks

We are continuing our conversation about the oceanfront's iconic landmarks. Around 2014, prompted by the lack of work Asbury Partners' majority shareholder, iStar LLC, had undertaken, let alone finished, on the boardwalk, the City threatened to withdraw the master developer's development rights. The two sides held a hearing in county court in Freehold, where the Partners pulled itself out of the soup by hiring a retail and entertainment developer at the eleventh hour. Madison Marquette would restore, maintain and handle rentals, in the pavilions, Casino, the Carousel House, Convention Hall and the Paramount Theater.

A work schedule with hard deadlines was drawn up for most of the latter, except that there would be no immediate deadlines for restoration of the Casino. Several pavilions were demolished – along with their plumbing and sewer lines – and 'replaced' with 'temporary' metal shipping containers, pop-up retail, painted trendy, whimsical shore side colors. Around that time Asbury Partners also produced a list that included most of the landmarks, which it labeled “Imminent Hazards”. The City's approval of the list freed the master developer to demolish any of the buildings without first gaining the City's approval.
Since then progress stopped then started with deadlines sliding and alternating with new spaces in bold designs, opening and closing and opening again, while work north of Convention Hall was set aside for later. With retail growing, iStar and Madison Marquette formed a separate company to manage it, called Madison Asbury Retail LLC. That brings us to the current spot where the City in August this year saw it necessary to hold the Partners' – iStar LLC – and Madison Marquette, now officially iStar's “sub-developer”, in default.
Coming as the default resolution did, just weeks before the hugely successful Sea Hear Now festival, AR was compelled to point out the lack of consistent action on the part of the Asbury Park City Council - 1) To first acknowledge through its Resolution of Aug. 25th, 2021, 2021-386 Default Notices, the lack of any engineer's report that all elements of the 'Convention Hall Complex' “are safe for human occupancy”... Thereby not verifying the safety of the oceanfront landmark buildings. 2) Then failing to block public access to said hazards – the same buildings it calls the "Convention Hall Complex"; 3) Its decision to leave most of that "Complex" open to an expected 30,000 people during the Sea Hear Now Festival over the Sept. 17 - 19 weekend. 4) Then, inexplicably the City the following weekend, Sept 24 - 26, barred another concert due to the dangerous condition of the same buildings. This puzzling behavior created considerable confusion among social media posters, including visitors to this page.
Suggestions flowed in for doing a non-profit search, or a wealthy partner for the City (As if we don't already have one), holding a Go-Fund-Me, and on... At the core of this writer's response is my own memory of nights of public hearings and planning board nearly all-nighters, while neighbors crouched over the plan – all of us hanging on every word that stated we were granting the rights to the whole oceanfront and all of its buildings for fire sale prices to the buyers in exchange for their restoring and maintaining the priceless works by world class architects, master visionaries of NYC's Grand Central Terminal and Asbury Park's Convention Hall, Whitney Warren and Charles D. Wetmore.
To understand what is being painted now as a dilemma between residents desperate to hold onto Asbury's landmark buildings, which absolutely do set Asbury Park several cuts above its largely unremarkable neighbors to the south and the north, and the purportedly limited options facing the city fathers. In such situations City leaders have appeared too often to cower before powerful master developer iStar LLC and its sub-developer Madison Marquette – we can't afford a prolonged lawsuit!, is a worn-thin excuse for rolling over. But this time, the City decided to cite both of these entities, in the form of Madison Asbury Retail LLC, for its failed obligations under Asbury Partner's original 2002 agreement, the principle target of the City's default Resolution 2021 - 386.
They even hired a legal consultant, attorney Joanne Vos, of Maraziti Falcon, LLP law firm in Cedar Knolls, to locate and analyze the genuine legal docs. More on the docs and Tommy DeSeno Esq's charitable offer later. Suffice to say, we who seek to understand also need to look back at that oceanfront redevelopment deal of 2002.
Back then the City was literally tied to an earlier redevelopment plan – the ill-fated 1980's plan, Ocean Mile -- that the city approved under developers Henry Vaccaro of Asbury Park and his partner Joe Carabetta, of Bridgeport, Conn. Their project halted suddenly, unlike the drawn out deep freezes of '07 – '10, when the Esperanza, for one, was left to whistle in the wind while sub-developer Dean Geibel and his Metro Homes LLC paused in '07 to work on other projects in Hoboken and Jersey City – the latter being the Trump Plaza high rise.
Most people who first came to town at the dawn of the 21st Century, including me, looked upon the aborted concrete skeleton towering over a deserted beachfront, its metal panels clanging in the unobstructed wind, and assumed that some con men had swept through the town stripping it bear before slipping out under cover of dark.
We pointed fingers at the owners of once distinctive architecture that lay barren or at best vacant. Once affordable apartment buildings like The Britwood and The Jersey, little more than a block from the ocean, stood empty and decaying. We blamed those would-be developers for the city's dwindling revenues and mounting debt.
How could we have known then that the city was stalling or outright denying building permits for the special ocean redevelopment zone to anyone but the master developer. The most expensive real estate in the City was frozen. This was the scene when the second deal was struck – at a bankruptcy court in Bridgeport, where a judge had held contractor Carabetta's Asbury Park ocean redevelopment rights within an expanding suit, for nearly two decades.
But that day, the judge decided to release Asbury's oceanfront from that bankruptcy. Present that day, in addition to Vaccaro and Carabetta, were the people who became Asbury Partners: representatives for M.D. Sass, two brothers from Belmar, Larry and Glenn Fishman. I'm not sure whether Marty Sass and his partner in the NYC-based asset management company they ran were both there in person. But Marty later bragged in a real estate industry magazine that he had landed a very lucrative purchase of oceanfront distressed property.
We would later learn that the brothers Fishman had worked for Sass for many years buying tax liens from local municipal tax sales at the Jersey Shore for Marty's NYC-based private bank. Tax liens on residential properties are usually considered low risk investments, since the property owners, either investors who hate to part with tax money or absentee landlords, don't want to let them go and will pay off the taxes and liens before the sheriff sells the properties. Meanwhile investors like Sass earn a very nice return for their investments.
Among those surprised by the judge's seemingly sudden actions, which also saw the parties through negotiations and the exchange of payments to Carabetta and Vaccaro for their prized rights to develop one of last stretches of open Atlantic Ocean beachfront to Sass all in one day, was a quiet, successful builder who had been waiting a long time with his own plan for Asbury Park.
Ted Murnick had built two high-rise apartment towers, the affordable, functional mid-town Monroe and Deal Lake Tower with the same floor plan, but views of Deal Lake and the ocean that more than justified its slightly higher rent scale. Murnick had even assembled a tabletop beachfront of a miniature replacement for Ocean Mile.
Despite his blueprints and occasional protests at town hall meetings, the newly elected council would go on to insist that the “Asbury Partners” deserved to get anything they wanted in exchange for taking the huge risk it was willing to chance on the distressed beachfront and its crumbling facades. All for less than what one condo in the 17-story Asbury Ocean Club goes for today. They had to grab the offer, they'd shoot back at doubtful taxpayers, no one else was willing to take it on.

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