Faded N.J. resort on cutting edge of urban planning Long Branch comes back from destructive fire of 1987


LONG BRANCH, N.J. - Over the years, this once-vibrant vacation spot watched its sandy beaches and its tourism erode. Then came the fire in 1987 that destroyed the city's fishing pier, boardwalk and an amusement park called Kid's World.

Now, after a decade that left it faded and abandoned, this stretch of Atlantic coast is on the brink of a comeback and, curiously enough, the cutting edge of urban planning.

Five developers are negotiating with the city to build housing, a restored pier, an entertainment center, restaurants and shops all connected by resculptured streets lined with trees, walkways and bicycle paths.

But Long Branch's redevelopment plan, designed by the architects and urban planners who created South Street Seaport in Manhattan, has won attention not for its ambitious scope but because it persuaded the state to streamline its usually laborious approval process.

In preparing a master plan that sets guidelines for developers, city officials incorporated all the state's development regulations into local zoning laws. That strategy guarantees that developers who meet local guidelines automatically comply with state law.

"We have paved the road for them," Mayor Adam Schneider said. "With this plan, you don't have to go out and hire a very sophisticated attorney. You don't have to go out and hire a very sophisticated architect. You don't have to hire a planner and an engineer and spend two years negotiating with the state. Their eyes light up."

Governor's praises

In January, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman trumpeted Long Branch as a model for fast-track state approval of local development. "We'll create one of the greatest incentives state government can offer a town," she said in her inaugural address. "A pledge to get out of your way."

She added: "We've tried it in one town, and it's working. Let's make sure it works everywhere."

For developers and municipalities, the governor's pledge is a tantalizing prospect. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country and has the second-highest per-capita income, creating a seemingly boundless appetite for residential and commercial construction.

In late January, the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection signed into law a blanket permit for Long Branch's redevelopment plan.

The arrangement, the first of its kind, is unusual because the state has granted approval based not on the developer's design for a specific building or project but rather on the city's master plan.

While Long Branch's approach will trim the bureaucratic process for developers, reaching the agreement with the state took more than three years of difficult planning.

The effort was spearheaded by Long Branch Tomorrow, a public-private partnership formed in 1993.

The Thompson Design Group in Boston, which was hired by Long Branch to draw up the redevelopment plans, advocated a redevelopment plan that would comply with state law from the outset and would make even greater demands on developers for preserving the character of the city as a historical summer resort town.

Earlier efforts failed

But neither the partnership nor the designer expected the idea to be served up as a model for state policy. The primary goal was simply to succeed where previous efforts at redevelopment had failed.

"We didn't come up with this from a policy perspective," said Pratap Talwar, a senior urban designer at Thompson, which has long experience in complex waterfront projects.

"We went out and did surveys and interviews with developers of every scale, finding out what were the barriers to entry, why wouldn't they embrace a plan that had so much public support and clear opportunities to make money?" Talwar said.

An attempt to revitalize the oceanfront in the mid- to-late 1980s, for example, resulted in the construction of a Hilton Hotel but nothing else after the plans bogged down in the approval stage.

But drafting a plan that would have both public and private support in Long Branch entailed its own complications, Talwar said.

Schneider and two of his top aides, the business administrator, Howard Wooley Jr., and planning director, Carl Turner, flew to Boston to look at an initial model expecting Long Branch to be reborn as a glorious summer resort.

To their surprise, the Thompson plan included a large residential component. "We said: 'Where is the Ferris wheel? Where are the amusements?' " Wooley recalled. "We had seen it as a commercial, touristy kind of thing. They thought a year-round residential community would be a better approach." But Talwar and others prevailed, insisting that relying on seasonal tourism and commerce had been a main reason for Long Branch's decline.

Official surprised

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