Inside the Hotel Betting on a Luxury Future for Asbury Park
For all its expansive beaches, tanned and tattooed bodies, and long stretches of boardwalk, it never quite seems to be Asbury Park's time in the sun.
The seaside town's return to glamour has been predicted for a decade or more, as gentrifiers renovated dozens of its crumbling Victorians, and serious restaurants opened up. Structures formerly used for carnival-like rides and games have been reinvented as bars or performance spaces. But the quaint seaside town still hasn’t quite made the leap to luxury yet. Despite that lively boardwalk and excellent oceanfront location under two hours from New York City, it hasn’t mustered the allure of the Hamptons, Fire Island, or even Connecticut.
Now its residents are holding out hope that a new luxury hotel opening next month will help usher in a new era of success for the town. Hotelier David Bowd's new project, The Asbury, aims to attract a clientele that is accustomed to serious comfort—and top-tier amenities. It will be the first new hotel in Asbury Park in several decades.
“There is nothing vanilla about this hotel—every square foot is programmed and interesting,” Bowd explained by phone from his office on Cape Cod. “It’s inspired by places that have a real soul like San Francisco or Brighton in England back in the 1970s.” The 110-room resort, housed in a converted Salvation Army building, resembles a hipster Happy Days, the decor and amenities offering a chic riff on rock ’n’ roll Americana.
It will include a rooftop garden that morphs into an alfresco drive-in-style movie theater every evening, plus a rec room-like ground floor filled with pinball machines, ping-pong, and a communal work table adjoining its front desk, where the barista-trained check-in clerks will be ready to serve up fresh espresso any time of day or night. As for the branding for the entire complex, it’s been handled by Baron & Baron, renowned for its work with luxury firms such as Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, and Cappellini.
Bowd’s Asbury hotel is part of a wider attempt to recapture the glory days of Asbury Park’s founding in 1871, when developer James Brady invented a new resort town intended to be the toniest spot on the Jersey Shore. There are hopeful signs already elsewhere in town: The oceanfront boardwalk is already home to The Market, one of those indie, indoor markets selling handcrafts and cold-brewed coffee. The Stone Pony (yes, of Bruce Springsteen fame) attracts major musical acts from all eras—this summer’s acts will include the Violent Femmes, the Lumineers, the Go-Go’s, and Walk the Moon. Before concerts, fans flock to Porta, a loftlike gourmet pizza place with world-class beers on tap and a party atmosphere. Meanwhile, last summer, the Lena Dunham-dating member of the band fun., Jack Antonoff, himself a Jersey native, brought a new live music festival here, Shadow of the City.
Undoubtedly the biggest impact on Asbury Park’s future is likely to come thanks to the efforts, and coffers, of residential developer iStar, which tapped Bowd to helm the Asbury hotel after snapping up more than 30 acres of land here. IStar, the onetime Starwood Financial, is the real estate lender-turned-developer run by the Midas-touch Texan Jay Sugarman. In recent years, the company has become known for its focus on rejuvenating struggling areas exactly like Asbury—see its planned 5,000-seat performance space-cum-restaurant in Coney Island.
IStar aims to use the Asbury as an anchor driving commercial and residential activity, with plans for up to 2,100 new homes. (Per 2013 Census data, the resort town is home to just over 15,000 people, so this could create a significant potential uptick in population.)
Smartly, iStar has also plowed money into local community groups to prop up Asbury Park’s social infrastructure, like the local Boys and Girls Club run by Douglas Eagles. “We have a very close relationship with [iStar],” he explains by phone from his office on Monroe Avenue in Asbury’s southwest. “They have a broader vision for Asbury Park that isn’t just limited to that first two blocks on the waterfront, and they can finance their own projects—they’re not dependent on outside financiers.”
Always a Bridesmaid
IStar isn't the first would-be savior to come to town. Back in the 1980s, a Connecticut developer announced a master plan much like iStar’s proposals today—only to fall prey to a lethal combination of bankruptcy, a housing bubble, and union snafus, leaving just an unfinished building as a rusty monument to his dreams for Asbury.
But by the year 2000, the New York Times was trilling: "Move Over, Fire Island, Here Comes Asbury Park; Urban Gays Lead Way in Reviving This Run-Down Resort." One such incomer even proudly recounted how he spotted a police car outside an elegant home, deduced that the owner had just died, and swooped in for a quick bargain purchase. Unfortunately, thanks to 9/11 and the dot-com bust, Asbury Park still sputtered. Three years later and another developer appeared, trumpeting a $1.2 billion plan to revive the oceanfront—only to see that effort stall out, too.
Certainly, Asbury Park has the potential to be a true luxury getaway—after all, that was its purpose from the outset, with James Brady’s founding vision creating an enviable infrastructure for such a resort: avenues up to 200 feet wide, two lakes, and a boardwalk more than a mile long. And per that New York Times story, LGBT gentrifiers continue to stream into town (the local gay pride parade is the largest in the state).
But the city is also struggling against some constraints that are state- rather than town-centric: Arcane New Jersey regulations restrict how hotels can be constructed on the oceanfront, resulting in largely ocean-view, not oceanfront, rooms. (The Asbury’s David Bowd says only 7 of its 110 rooms have “true, direct, ocean-facing views.”) Accessibility is another challenge—there are direct public transport links, but even in season these can be sporadic and poorly scheduled for a weekend getaway. Bowd responds that his team is actively courting a “major bus company out of New York” to run a jitney-style service, as well as another firm to operate direct ferries from lower Manhattan.
These plans sound eerily familiar to longtime Asbury-watcher Daniel Wolff, author of 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land. He quotes author Stephen Crane, who grew up in the area not long after its founding in the 1870s. “He said, ‘The thing about Asbury is that it doesn’t make anything’—it was a service economy before we had the term,” Wolff explained by phone from his home in Nyack, N.Y. “It was just there to provide hotels and amusements for well-off people from New York City. The people who lived here and did all the work in those hotels—cleaning, cooking—ended up not getting a very good deal.” Unless iStar can break that much-repeated cycle, Wolff doubts the latest attempts at revivalism will succeed. “I find it hard to believe they’re going to provide jobs that pay a living wage, though I hope they do. But there’s too much history saying in the end it won’t benefit all of Asbury.”
David Bowd aims to address Wolff's concerns—he’s been running a hospitality school on weekends for 150 or so would-be staffers for a few months, hoping to hire many of them for the hotel’s opening. He doesn’t intend for the Asbury to become a summer-only destination, either, with his business plan allowing the hotel to thrive on just 50 percent occupancy off-season. “The secret sauce is that we’ve really focused on year-round programming for places like the lobby bar.” For his part, Wolff wishes Bowd luck. “There’s no reason that all the towns along the Jersey Shore can’t prosper, because there’s an enormous population there that has a lot of money and likes the ocean.” He pauses. “It’s great that there is something going on—the question is how big the vision is.”