Asbury Park boardwalk reinvented through retail

Signs point the way to dining and entertainment on the Asbury Park Boardwalk.

ASBURY PARK, N.J. – When your city includes structures by the same architects who labored on Grand Central Station in New York, the standards should be high.

So when developer Madison Marquette set out to reinvent the famed, 1.5-mile-long, 70-foot-wide Asbury Park boardwalk hugging the Atlantic Ocean, the vision was clear: Use retail as a tool for revitalization, take unique products to the market, and make it all more than a seasonal attraction.

The grand experiment, in its ninth year, has worked out by most accounts: The boardwalk hosted over 1.5 million visitors annually, while businesses along it generated more than $35 million in sales last year, up from about $6.8 million in 2008.

Beachgoers have risen from 55,000 in 2008 to 500,000 in 2016. Its six national music venues sold 200,000 tickets in 2015 and expects to surpass that when the numbers are finally tallied for 2016.

The Asbury, a new 110 room hotel, was recently named the 2016 Best New Hotel in America by USA TODAY. The Asbury park waterfront redevelopment  plan features entitlements for 2,500 additional residential units and 250 additional hotel rooms.

Retail now covers over 80,000 square feet and includes shops, such as Bettie’s Bombshells and Big Spoon Little Spoon Naturals, and restaurants such as Anchor's Bend and Cubacan.

The boardwalk has seven full-scale restaurants and lounges, over 15 specialty food concepts, and many specialty shops and boutiques. It has five historic pavilions, the famed Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre, and a southern end anchored by the historic steam plant, which once provided heat and central steam for the pavilions.

In many ways, the city, which sits 50 minutes from New York's Lincoln Tunnel and just over an hour from Philadelphia by car, is poised to grow more. New retail, food and beverage, and event space will be activated — about 300,000 square feet in the next six years, said Peter Tomai, Madison Marquette’s managing director of investments.   

Over the next three years, Madison plans to activate 120,000 square feet of that just on the boardwalk, including renovation of the 1950s-style 5th Avenue Pavilion, with a new oceanview restaurant and bar overlooking a rejuvenated open-air rooftop band shell.

A total makeover of the  4th Avenue Pavilion, home to Madison’s successful Storehouse retail cooperative, will follow, opening an additional 30,000 square feet on the boardwalk. 

The firm is also continuing the long-term preservation of the famous Asbury Park Convention Hall, Grand Arcade, and Paramount Theatre complex.

To survive the winter, Madison Marquette drives visits with special events and programs spread throughout five venues, from the tree-lighting and holiday markets in the Grand Arcade to the Light of Day festival. 

Tomai said there’s now much more demand on the boardwalk than available space. The interest was evident at the International Council of Shopping Centers national dealmaking conference in New York last month. 

“What we’ve got here is very special, and you really need to experience it,” said Tomai, as he gave a visual presentation to potential investors.

Madison Marquette, which owns or runs more than 20 million square feet of high-end retail and mixed-use projects in the U.S., began laying the groundwork for the boardwalk in 2007.

“Back then, it was still very rugged, and there was a lot of crime and undesirables,” Tomai said. “We revitalized and rebuilt the boardwalk and renovated several of the retail pavilions. We secured retail throughout the Grand Arcade surrounding the Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre, and began managing and promoting Stone Pony and Wonder Bar.”

In 2008 Madison also partnered with Live Nation to attract national talent to the live venues that host over 300 shows and other events annually.

On New Year’s Eve, local bands performed as cover bands of more famous ones, such as Weezer, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. Famously, Led Zeppelin skipped Woodstock to play Asbury Park. Jim Morrison and the Doors have dropped by, and it’s where an upstart named Bruce Springsteen got his start. 

Tomai calls one development tool “a tenant incubation model.”  He seeks unusual concepts that can’t be found in any mall.

“If you are offering something you can get online or in any lifestyle mall in America, you are going to die,”  Tomai said. 

Fitting the bill is Tara Elliott, who in 2015 opened Bettie’s Bombshells, which markets itself as “New Jersey’s only pin-up treasure trove of officially licensed Bettie Page & Esther Williams goods.” 

She's grateful that Madison Marquette approved her second proposal, "giving me a chance to prove myself,” said Elliott, who also fronts a well-known band, Tara Elliott and the Red Velvets. 

“I had extremely limited capital as I transitioned from collecting unemployment and recently quit a software IT sales account position in New York,” she said. “I was ready to take a leap.”

Among her inventory on day one were six one-piece bathing suits, 18 bikinis, 14 dresses, six men's T-shirts, six onesies for babies, 19 hair flowers, and a dozen pairs of sunglasses.

Madison Marquette allowed her "the freedom to express myself and run my business independently as an entrepreneur,” Elliott said.

The Market Initiative is Madison’s retail curation program. It’s where the developer introduces unusual micro or emerging brands that lack storefronts but are established. All are emerging artisanal brands and part of Madison’s effort to make the boardwalk unique.

The Storehouse in the 4th Pavilion takes a different approach – a shop within a shop concept, staffed and curated by Madison. There are eight such stores, such as Nomad and Interwoven.

Then there are the standalone stores such as Big Spoon Little Spoon Naturals, which started in the kitchen of Amy and Matt Bergman’s home in Long Branch, N.J., in 2013. The store debuted last March on the Boardwalk and is open Friday through Sunday during the off-season, offering natural skin and home products.

Amy Bergman said Madison Marquette trimmed some of their first year's base rent and set up a retail licensing agreement and rent pay schedule in a way to help their company succeed.

For example, "In the economically more trying off-season months, we only had to pay percentage rent, so if in February it snows for 15 days straight, we don't have to worry about paying a colossal rent payment."

The store now has an 1,100-square-foot production facility down the street from its store. “It’s been challenging keeping up with the demand for our product," she said. "We grossed over 400 percent more in overall combined sales (including storefront, online, pop-ups, and wholesale) in 2016 than we did in 2015 from home."

Garrick Brown, vice president of retail research for the Americas at Cushman & Wakefield, said there were benefits and trade-offs with setting up retail on the ocean front.

“On the whole, sites on the water are more naturally appealing,” Brown said. “Well-situated, quality development waterfront sites are a natural magnet for people, and anywhere you can build density and foot traffic is going to be appealing to retailers. “  

Tomai said there's one issue.

“The biggest challenge is space right now,” he said. “We are bringing in more space right now because of the demand.”

Todd Burton, Madison’s director of business and partner development, which includes leasing, said seasonal pop-up shops have performed as high as $500 to $1,000 per square foot during the summer peak.

The pop-ups can open without much capital investment or long-term commitment, Burton said. 

“We bring in great concepts, promising concepts by giving some lower rent," Burton said. “We incubate them from just a pop-up to a storefront that’s better than one at a New Jersey shopping center.”

On a typical Friday, as with most Shore bedroom communities, people begin to trickle in from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

“There is grand architecture here," Tomai said. "The Convention Center was designed by Warren & Wetmore, who built Grand Central Station in New York. In the 1950s, the Garden State Parkway made more distant Shore towns accessible" by car.

Before that, "Asbury was it."

Contact sparmley@phillynews.com or @SuzParmley