Though the seaside community of Long Branch has once again found itself snarled in litigation related to real-estate, at last week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Adam Schneider seemed confident his vision for mixed-use properties in the West End neighborhood would come to fruition. He dismissed proposals for a new county park as a pipe-dream. This was not the first time the Mayor criticized calls for a county buyout of the long abandoned movie theatre on Ocean Avenue, adjacent to West End Park. Since a group of local activists (this blogger included) began calling on the Monmouth County Freeholders to purchase the blighted parcel, which has stood vacant for two decades, the City has dismissed the feasibility of such a plan, arguing that their overlay ordinance is best suited for the neighborhood.
Two weeks earlier, during a City Council meeting, the Mayor explained that, per a conversation with Freeholder Tom Arnone, the County wasn’t interested in West End:
“I am the one who talked to Mr. Arnone,” he said. “And frankly, your proposal is not going to go anywhere. There is no, and I am perfectly happy to discuss it, here or any other place you’d like me to…but your talking about a five million dollar piece of property, the County is not, Mr. Arnone told me very specifically they are not interested, they don’t have five million dollars, they don’t come in to purchase it, and they are not going to do it unless we’re interested.”
On June 23rd, he repeated the sentiment.
“That proposal is nonsense,” he said in response to one resident’s support for the park. “There is no proposal, frankly. The county is not interested they have made that very clear to us.”
Of course, supporters of the park proposal haven’t lost hope. The Freeholders, they claim, are far from unanimous in their views regarding Long Branch. There are, after all, four other individuals on the Board of Freeholders, two of whom will be seeking re-election this November. The resistance from the Mayor and Council, though unsurprising to long-time observers of Long Branch politics, hasn’t stopped residents from voicing their vision for West End; lawn signs have popped up around town, on homes and businesses, supporting a new park. Facebook is abuzz with chatter, and activists plan to raise their cause directly to the Freeholders at their July 23rd meeting in West Long Branch (when Freeholder Arnone will undoubtedly be asked to clarify his alleged view that the park proposal “isn’t going anywhere.”)
After-all, why isn’t it going anywhere? Why has the proposal been written off so quickly? Especially from the municipal level, where the financial cost to the City would be minimal, but the potential impact on the community priceless, it doesn’t seem to make much sense that the idea has been discarded to the point that, when asked at the June 9th meeting whether they had even discussed the proposal, the City Council responded with awkward silence. In other-words: no.
To further complicate matters, last week a local attorney filed suit against the city, arguing the overlay is illegal and constitutes “spot zoning,” the reforming of existence zoning laws for the good of a specific private entity at the expense of the the public. Thus, the sale of the property, and any new construction on the lot, is deadlocked for the time being. West End’s future is, for all intents and purposes, up in the air.
But how did this situation come to be? Why is a dilapidated theatre and empty storefronts sitting along one of the finest stretches of beach at the Jersey Shore, a tourist haven that bustles with visitors every weekend? It doesn’t make sense to outside observers, though those “in the know,” the students of local politics, are often left scratching their heads as well. The West End Theatre has sat abandoned, a rotting, asbestos filled embarrassment within an otherwise impeccable neighborhood, for almost twenty years now. For some perspective on that, the last time it was open for business: Bill Clinton was president, the Super Nintendo was boasting sixteen whole bits of excitement, the Power Rangers had just made their debut on Fox Kids, and this blogger was about to enter kindergarten.
Of course, while locals may view the recent mixed-use proposal as a superior alternative to the existing crumbling eyesore, it is important to remember this was not the first attempt to utilize that property. No, the theatre’s perpetual vacancy is not the result of lack of interest on behalf of potential investors. Long before it even fell into such disrepair, magnate Mitch Leigh (Broadway aficionados will likely know him for Man of La Mancha) purchased the property, hoping to renovate and restore the theatre as an artistic hub in an already hip community. Alas, it would never come to be.
As theAtlanticville reported in 2002, Leigh lost hope in the project after the adjoining properties were purchased, inflating the costs and making his own dream of a local theatre monetarily infeasible. Who purchased those neighboring lots?
None other than Solomon Dwek, then a prominent figure in Long Branch.
According to DataUniverse, in 2003, Leigh sold the empty theatre to Ocean Avenue Partners, LLC. for $1,450,000. Records on file with the Monmouth County Clerk’s office show that Dwek was a “managing member” of the LLC. (For reference, it is in the property records, Inst. Number: 2003195731, Book/Page: OR-8262/7558).
Files obtained from the Division of Revenue & Enterprise Services, Business Records Service show that in 2003 the corporation’s registered agent was Michael Benedetto, of Ansell, Zaro, Grimm, and Aaron, P.C. (For reference, Business Id: 0600170012, Certificate Number: 6000044010). If the name “Aaron” sounds familiar, it is because he is none other than James Aaron, currently Long Branch’s attorney,who recently sent a frivolous claims letter to litigant on behalf of the city, asking Scott Kelly to withdraw the lawsuit pertaining to the overlay so that the new development can proceed on the theater lot. It is, of course, worth noting that theAsbury Park Press reported that Benedetto and Dwek were involved in several ventures before Ansell, Zaro, Grimm, and Aaron, P.C. severed their relationship with the real-estate developer, who was by then a pariah.
The theatre itself has been trapped in something of a limbo ever since (though Ocean Avenue Partners, LLC recently planned to sell it to make way for the new development). While the surrounding neighborhood has continued to evolve, channeling the personalities of Monmouth University students and locals, it has decayed. With the building sitting vacant, however, there is now talk within City Hall of the West End needing revitalization. Though one walk down Brighton Avenue reveals a thriving, close-knit community or cute storefronts and cozy cafes, it is not typically in Long Branch’s nature to let neighborhoods grow and evolve organically; things need to be done centrally. Thus, the overlay was passed, arguably to spark some kind of renaissance in the West End, and allow for the construction of mixed used buildings.
However, if all goes according to the City’s plans, the vacant theatre will be replaced by a three-story, mixed used building. Commercial businesses will occupy the ground floor, religious facilities the upper-levels. This area was not zoned for religious use, hence the need for the overlay ordinance. The locals pushing for the county park as an alternative fear that the religious operations within an area not zoned for such purposes compromises the integrity of the City’s Master Plan, which was designed to maximize the efficiency and economic stability of the city, and could have negative consequences the other businesses in West End. This is why the Planning Board rejected an application to utilize the space for religious use in 2013. Some have accused the city of passing the overlay design in an attempt to stave off litigation resulting from that decision.