Long Branch, New Jersey is rapidly transforming itself as more than just a resort community for the rich and famous. Named as home to one of America’s Top 20 beaches, the oceanfront here has been a draw for many years, reaching back to the visits of seven Presidents, and further to the vacation homes of wealthy New Yorkers. Having succumbed to a period of decline, the area has received a flush of redevelopment recently, with the help of the mayor, the city council and the laws of eminent domain.
A Storied History
“Long Branch at one point was one of the premier resort towns in the United States,” says Roberto Ferragina, a local historian. “The oceanfront was a draw, and the town itself was filled with large Victorian homes that were owned by wealthy Anglo-Saxons, typically from the New York City area, who had vacation homes here.”
“From the 1860’s through the first World War, it was the resort town,” continues Ferragina. “During that period, names such as Astor and Fisk were present, and First Lady Mary Lincoln visited in 1861.”
An economic boom was ushered in when a center of entertainment was built near the town, continues Ferragina. “In 1870, a racetrack opened, today called the Monmouth Park Racetrack. It brought in a lot of people and put Long Branch more on the map. Back then, horseracing was the prime entertainment of the day. It brought in the Presidents: Arthur, Hayes, Grant, Harrison, Wilson, McKinley and Garfield, who was brought here after he was shot.”
While today racetracks are often thought of as havens for gambling and a potential for unsavory characters to take up residence, this wasn’t true in previous eras. “The racetrack actually brought in more wealthy individuals,” says Ferragina. The entourage that surrounded these people, who were prominent in politics and business, brought money with them to the area.
One of the Presidents’ visits was a final and unhappy one. “When Garfield was shot, a special train track was constructed to carry him to his door,” says Ferragina. “They believed that the sea air would help him recover. This was before antiseptics, however, and when they tried to remove the bullet from his spine, it became more infected. After many weeks, Garfield died here.”
The economy of the area took a turn for the worse in the 1920s, says Ferragina. “The first decline in Long Branch was primarily because of the gambling laws and the ill-advised construction on the beachfront. In the 1800s, the Victorian homes were built up against the beach, and when a series of bad storms hit the area, the beaches eroded tremendously.”
A Gateway for Immigrants
Between the 1920s and 1950s there were waves of Irish, Italian and German immigration, which added to the workforce and placed heavier demands on public services.
“During this time, immigration and small factories came to the area,” says Ferragina. “A tremendous amount of Italians settled here. With the expanded population, new public works became necessary: schools, roads and infrastructure. The Catholic Church became more pronounced.”
“By the ‘60s, organized crime had taken hold of Long Branch,” says Ferragina. “It drove out some of the finer elements. Wealthy individuals moved to nearby towns, houses became shabby and the welfare system became prominent in Long Branch. People on welfare, and welfare housing started appearing.”
Most of the homes and early development was torn down, continues Ferragina. “The only remaining structure, built in 1879, from the town’s heyday, the St. James Episcopal Church, which has been renamed the Church of the Presidents, is an historic site.”
“During the 1970s and ‘80s, the town was basically stagnant,” continues Ferragina. “In the ‘80s they expanded the main beachfront and Monmouth Medical Center and made the train station a major hub, instead of just a stop along the way.” In order to expand the train station, however, one heavily populated Italian neighborhood had its main artery closed, and the neighborhood to this day has a different feel than the rest of the town.
People from present generations in New Jersey remember Long Branch mostly for the Haunted Mansion that used to call the area home. It was located on the pier and helped Long Branch retain its tourism in small part throughout these lean times. “The Pier consisted of amusement park rides and games, and would bring in tens of thousands of people every summer,” says Ferragina. The main attraction was the Haunted Mansion. It was famous all over New Jersey and New York. In the late ‘80s, the whole thing burned down. It was called Kid’s World at that time. Ironically and conveniently it was closed for the day, and when it burned, it brought darkness to the town. They did an investigation and found a perfectly square hole in one of the gas lines. Nothing ever came of the investigation, and the value of the property plummeted and became very unsafe.”
“Now Long Branch is experiencing a rebirth,” says Ferragina. “Two things are contributing primarily: the housing market in New Jersey has exploded and the property is worth a lot more now, and the local politicians in the town grabbed a hold of the situation, and depending on your point of view, became heroes or villains. They labeled, legally, the area blighted and sold it to developers. The Pier Village area is a residential and commercial development.”
“Tourism is up in Long Branch and property value is up too,” says Ferragina.
Development and Eminent Domain
“Within the last several years the city itself has been going through a Renaissance and is continuing to attract valuable development,” says Joseph Ferragina, of Comprehensive Property Management, and brother to Roberto.
Much of the new development has been made possible by the controversial use of the laws of eminent domain. “It’s a very controversial issue and has attracted national attention,” says Ferragina. “They have blighted large sections of oceanfront property. The law has allowed the city to take people’s land through eminent domain. The mayor and the city council have authority in this matter. If the city council determines that a piece of land is blighted, they can force them out of their homes according to the eminent domain law.”
The controversy stems largely from the use of the law. Eminent domain is in place so that when public works, such as highways, need to be built through land that is privately owned, the good of the people overrides the individual ownership of the property. The government then gives the owner market value for the property and claims it in the name of the government.
In Long Branch, the controversy encompasses the spirit of the law: should eminent domain be used for commercial enterprises? Does the influx of shopping and tourism warrant the taking of homes that may have been in families’ possession for many generations? There are ongoing, heated debates and arguments for both sides.
“We have completed Pier Village, which is a mix of residential and commercial enterprises,” says Jacob Jones, director of the town’s Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED). “Also, as a public amenity, the boardwalk and sidewalks were done and gazebos were put in. There is now a large gazebo for outdoor public events.”
“We had a ground breaking this past October for Pier Village—Phase 2, which will be another 95,000 square feet of commercial space and about 250 units of residential space,” says Jones. “Condominiums are up to three bedrooms, mostly two bedrooms, and run about $2,000 per month for rent.”
In June 2008, 216 rental residences opened along with a 24-room boutique hotel. Applied Development Company is planning a third and final phase at Pier Village that will include a 100-room hotel, 200 rental residences, 75 condominiums, 20,000 square feet of retail space and a new oceanfront public park.
“The Broadway Center will have a groundbreaking early in 2008,” with a 2009 opening, continues Jones, “where we will be creating about one million square feet of new commercial space. We are in negotiations for the hotel campus, which is part of the Ocean Place Resort & Spa Center, where they plan to build a second tower with new commercial space. All of the acquisitions are done, and no eminent domain is in play.”
“The other major project is the Broadway Gateway,” says Jones, “which will be big box commercial construction, possibly an acre big box store and office buildings, which will connect the oceanfront to the Broadway Arts Center. Big box would be a supermarket anchor, or other large space store.”
Other areas of the city receive economic boosts from tourism, too. While it was a draw in years past, one entertainment venue, which still brings in thousands of visitors annually is the Monmouth Park racetrack. “There was an infusion of private dollars in and around the racetrack which will provide lasting improvements.”
“The city used eminent domain only where necessary and was within the law, complied with the law, and ran into some opposition in the Beachfront North Project. This project is before the courts,” says Jones.
“Pier Village, phases two and three, will not involve eminent domain, but there were a couple of cases in the Broadway Center project and the beachfront project,” says Jones. The government is in compliance with the law and is trying to improve the area wherever possible, he says.
“There are plans to build dorms for the students, and there are about 58 or so students residing in Pier Village,” says Jones. “Monmouth University also creates a heavy demand for rentals, and the medical center does as well,” adds Joseph Ferragina. “A thousand per month’s rent is about where they begin.”
“The college creates an interesting dynamic,” continues Ferragina. “You have a college city for most of the year, and then a luxury vacation population for the summer.”
Denton Tarver is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.