Asbury Park looks to New Jersey for redevelopment aid Ceding some controlover renewal plans called small price to pay

August 27, 1998|By Ronald Smothers | Ronald Smothers,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- In the last dozen years this long-sagging New Jersey shore city has seen an eclectic bunch of would-be rescuers, with plans ranging from the mundane to the sublime.

There was the Indian tribe that wanted to open a boardwalk casino. There were the followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who bought a beachfront hotel in a plan to create transcendental meditation center.

And there was the developer who proposed a series of entertainment pavilions along the boardwalk, saying the family of Michael Jackson would operate one and Jacques Cousteau's organization another.

All of them ran aground, whether stalled by recessions, bankruptcies or a pervasive skepticism over the city's ability to reduce high rates of crime and poverty. But a small group of residents and business owners has rushed yet again into the fray, urging members of the City Council to accept a new offer from the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority to take on the long-stalled rebuilding effort.

Standing in the shadow of the hulking and incomplete Ocean Mile Condominiums project, which was abandoned by a bankrupt developer in 1992 and became a symbol of the city's plight, the group called the Asbury Park Consortium called on other residents to join them in putting away their fears of further disappointment.

The state agency could offer funds and expertise for planning, as well as help in attracting private development - assistance that members of the consortium said was crucial to any successful rebuilding effort. But opponents of state involvement say they are skeptical of the promises of outsiders, and wary that state officials might press for more low-income housing development.

Proponents said that ceding some control to the state was a small price to pay to jump-start a redevelopment effort that has languished for so long. "It's a simple choice between something vs. nothing," said John Hamilton, a councilman who supports state involvement. He said that few if any desirable private developers were pressing to help rebuild the mile-long stretch of properties across from the beachfront and boardwalk.

William Best, the executive director of the state authority, said the 18-month-old agency had so far spent $13 million in 17 cities in the state and leveraged more than $52 million in private investments. Financed with about $425 million, the agency can offer a range of help to 67 designated cities, he said.

This city of 17,000 people, just 60 miles from New York City, probably last saw some luster in the 70s when a local star, Bruce Springsteen, was packing them in at the Paramount Theater and Convention Center on a boardwalk that was still lined with amusements and carnival rides. It had already been declining as a resort area for some years, and racial disturbances at the time sped that decline.

Today the city is 70 percent black and has an unemployment rate of 18 percent - more than three times the statewide rate. The city's median income is $20,754, about half that of surrounding Monmouth County. About 22 percent of its families have earnings below the poverty level and 31 percent of its residents do not have high school diplomas.

In the 80s, the city adopted an ambitious redevelopment plan, of which the Ocean Mile condominiums were a key element. But the developer, Joseph Carabetta, who had the rights for the entire waterfront, was swamped by the recession and was forced to declare bankruptcy. Lawsuits by creditors and disarray among members of the Council over what course to take further complicated the city's efforts to move on.

"The only ones who got rich were the lawyers," said Rita Marano, owner of Kingsley Avenue Deli, as she displayed an editorial cartoon of lawyers dragging sacks of money out of town, from a local paper several years ago.

Even as all of this was going on, Asbury Park's leadership was undergoing a racial change from white to black. Long-smoldering distrusts between whites and blacks mixed with the disappointment and finger-pointing of the failed redevelopment efforts to make movement even more difficult, said Henry Vaccaro, a former partner in the bankrupted redevelopment effort.

Coalitions have grown up and collapsed. Council members have been elected only to be voted out in recall elections over promises they had made.

"We've been deceived and disappointed so many times by so many people that we don't know who to trust anymore," said a local landlord, Norman Lemonde, with a world-weary shrug.

Like Vaccaro and Marano, Lemonde says he is wary of state involvement. Citing state efforts in the 70s and early 80s, they equate state involvement with the building of low-income housing rather than commercial development. They also say that they fear an increase in people on government assistance and an ever-expanding local government, which they say has become the city's employer of last resort in the absence of private sector jobs.

Best insisted that the state had no such plans, but Marano's motto is once burned, twice cautious.

"It's a sin to say it, but some people can make a lot of money on poor people," she said.

Unlike Vaccaro and other veterans of the heated and contentious early years of the redevelopment effort, they were new, more optimistic voices. One immediate result of the state involvement would be the payment of some $6.5 million in back taxes on the redevelopment acres held by Carabetta. In the absence of those revenues, the city has been increasingly dependent on state aid to meet its budget.

Wilbert Russell, the city's fourth city manager in three years, has been on the job for just three months. He said he has been struck by how consumed people were with the mistakes of the past.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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