By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
As residents of Long Branch fought to save their homes, many external observers, the press included, questioned exactly how this battle over property rights came into being. To be clear, the rise of eminent domain abuse and the reshaping of the waterfront didn’t happen overnight; in both theory and practice, this redevelopment was a long-time coming.
Calls for redeveloping the city can be traced back to the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of the legendary pier fire that such plans inched toward reality, sparking debate as to what kind of attractions would be used to lure visitors and businesses back to the beaches. The damage from the blaze was irreparable and so devastating that Governor Tom Kean declared the boardwalk’s remains a disaster area. Amidst the rubble and ruins, businessman Pat Cicalese, who owned the pier and the adjoining Kids World amusement park, proposed building a successor, the plans for which demonstrated a structure in much the same spirit as the original. Unfortunately, insurance woes prevented this dream from ever growing beyond the initial planning stages; Long Branch entered the next decade without much progress in reviving the waterfront.
Financial impediment wasn’t the only roadblock to reviving seasonal tourism; changing social trends also stood in the way of any comeback. The boardwalks of yesteryear, now considered hotbeds of nostalgia and icons of Americana, were largely passé at that point, dismissed as unprofitable relics of a different era. Thus, some dreamed of a more refined waterfront, free of thrill rides, concessions, or arcades. This was the concept championed by Mayor Philip D. Huhn, who told the New York Times he would “like to see a promenade” and not a clone of Cicalese’s old facilities. These competing plans, coupled with legal and financial woes of the property’s owner, led to developmental limbo. The lot sat dormant for a decade, a depressing reminder of the past, but a situation many still feel the city government was ultimately responsible for.
“Our boardwalk burned down,” said Lori Ann Vendetti. “It was a great attraction [but] nobody did anything to that place to build it back up. So everything was boarded up for years and years.” In Vendetti’s eyes, it was the months immediately after the fire when action needed to be taken: “That was the time they needed to go in and build it back up!”
But nothing was done, so the former home of the amusement pier became an eyesore, a citywide embarrassment, and remained as such until 1996. Ten years after the fire, local businessman Robert Furlong, founder of the non-profit Long Branch Tomorrow, presented a privately commissioned redevelopment plan. He called for mixed-use (residential and business) developments along the waterfront and the aforementioned “infill” of empty parcels in residential areas. However, once approved, the project evolved and expanded in scope to propose a complete reshaping of the waterfront’s character and physical attributes.
Pier Village, the centerpiece of this new Long Branch, was to be an upscale destination, complete with high-end businesses and expensive restaurants. Beachfront North and South, located in opposite directions of Pier Village, would feature luxury condominiums and townhomes. It was more than apparent the coastal city had decided to rebrand itself; MTOSTA and several other communities didn’t fit into this grand scheme. They were too middle class and, for all intents and purposes, were viewed as obsolete. The construction of Beachfront North Phase I, which razed an entire portion of the town, was to be followed by an additional phase, which called for the leveling of MTOSTA, even though neighborhood was far removed from the decrepitness of the former pier complex.
Homeowners were not the only ones to feel the sting of eminent domain abuse; local business owners were also targeted. Jimmy and Elizabeth Liu, the couple behind Wizard’s World Arcade and the Café Bar, two of the only remaining oceanfront commercial attractions, had remained dedicated to the city through the toughest of economic times. Yet, with the adoption of the redevelopment plan, the duo was ordered to vacate the businesses, both of which were condemned. Jimmy Liu, who spent his entire adult life promoting the city, was offered a mere $900,000 for property appraised at $2.855 million. The Liu’s refused to sell, eventually unsuccessfully taking the case to court.
The controversy then expanded into Beachfront South, where there were plans to seize additional homes to make way for new development. Again, pleas to the City Council to allow for infill fell upon deaf ears. Homeowners anxiously waited for the day when their properties might be taken so a wealthier crowd could move in and assume their place.
Feeling unrepresented by the local government, anti-eminent domain activists channeled their efforts into the electoral arena, hoping to unseat the pro-redevelopment incumbents. The first of these efforts came in 2006, when local plumber Alfred “Alfie” Lenkiewicz challenged incumbent Mayor Adam Schneider. With his slate of candidates (the “New Wave Team,”) acting as the mouthpieces of political opposition, Lenkiewicz’s grassroots campaign garnered forty-two percent of the vote in a three-person contest. Though he wasn’t elected, many in MTOTSA viewed the respectable showing as a sign that voters sympathized with their plight.
“I was a major part of the Alfie Lenkiewicz campaign,” Lori Ann Vendetti recalled. “We put a plumber up against the machine in Long Branch and only lost by a few hundred votes; it was a grassroots, down to earth, unbelievable campaign!”
Later that year, Councilman John “Fazz” Zambrano resigned after admitting he accepted a thousand dollar bribe. A Special Election was held to choose a replacement and, out of a field of five candidates, four vocally opposed eminent domain (Brian Unger, Michael Sirianni, Ralph DeFillipo, and Vincent Maccioli). On Election Day, it was Unger, a former Green Party Legislative candidate, who was selected to serve out the remainder of Zambrano’s term. In the politician’s own words, the race was “a referendum” on eminent domain, and during the next three years, a fierce rivalry developed between Mayor Schneider and the newly elected Councilman.
Aside from being a perennial critic of the redevelopment efforts, Councilman Unger proposed an ordinance, Protecting the American Dream,to revert development in MTOTSA back to infill, though the council voted it down. The ideological battle between the Mayor and the Councilman reached its apex during the 2010 mayoral race, a clash of personalities and visions that pitted Mayor Schneider against his nemesis in a particularly messy mud-slinging contest. Eventually, the incumbent emerged with fifty-four percent of the vote.
While these electoral efforts helped raise awareness of the eminent domain battle, it was the judicial system that struck the harshest blow against the city’s redevelopment. By the time of the 2010 mayoral race, eminent domain would be off the table in Long Branch, a major setback for advocates of sweeping redevelopment, but a colossal legal victory for homeowners and advocates of property rights
To be completed in Part III….