Preserving Asbury Park’s Progressive History

By the appearance of its waterfront, the doldrums seem to have a clenching grasp on Asbury Park, N.J. Abandoned entertainment palaces of the late Victorian era and hotels of the early automobile age sit amidst cracked asphalt parking lots that divide beach and city. Imposing towers of senior and subsidized housing create the same effect writ larger, and the dilapidated rooming houses nearby ensure that you feel less than welcome here.

Now close your eyes and imagine Asbury Park without this decrepitude and you can see that Bruce Springsteen’s adopted hometown is also home to great urban design. This dates back to 1873 and James Bradley’s plan for the place that blended urban, suburban, and resort types in a way that fostered comfortably traditional and uniquely progressive design.

The city streets tell this story. Avenues, lined with residences and hotels, flare outward near the beach in order to capture ocean breezes and to more widely distribute them. In the downtown area south of the central Asbury Avenue, the pavement assumes a different personality. The triangulated street grid signals your placement in this high-density commercial district.

Asbury Park’s waterfront offered another variation on scale. The palaces and the hotels increased residential density by the water, exactly where people wanted to be. Today’s voids were once crowded with the theater of the street. And the waterfront served as a blank canvas for the exuberant Victorian and Populuxe architecture of the shoreline landmarks.

As suburbanization and automobiles flourished, Asbury Park floundered as a vacation destination. Newly mobile visitors became daytrippers rather than long-term guests, and the hotels floundered in their wake. Race riots in 1970 made things worse.

But Asbury Park’s downward slide is over. Redevelopment of a more ad-hoc variety is underway, but you won’t find it at the waterfront. Homes are under renovation and businesses are opening. The place is teeming with life, and it has something to do with loyal natives as well as newcomers, many of whom are gay. These inhabitants recognize the potential of this urban fabric.

Momentum builds, too. There are efforts to reclaim and rebuild Asbury Park’s waterfront. Meanwhile, the state of New Jersey has recently pledged to participate in the public-private partnerships that will make this $1.2 billion task happen.

The Waterfront Redevelopment Plan that will guide the process was authored by New York City architects Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (EEK). This revival-ready seashore metropolis seems a fitting place to apply some of the tenets of the New Urbanist movement, which the EEK plan invokes. Some of the basics as they apply to Asbury Park include renovating buildings of historical value (including the modernist ones); building relatively low-standing, mixed-use development that includes affordable housing; fixing the infrastructure that’s broken and rehabilitating its original layout. No McMansions allowed.

But big bucks, eminent domain, and visions of Seaside, Fla., the testing ground for the New Urbanist movement, don’t necessarily mean that Asbury Park will enjoy a happy ending. Will underground parking in new construction ensure visual and pedestrian connections between the water and existing neighborhoods? Or will the mere availability of parking spell a traffic-choked future for the city? Will developers forget Asbury’s pioneers, choosing to lease space to a tourist-friendly confectionery rather than a café or grocer geared more toward residents? And of course, there’s always the question of gentrification.

These are questions that should inspire daring, not caution, because at the heart of the matter is how the Waterfront Redevelopment Plan will embrace EEK’s version of New Urbanism. Asbury Park will test the limits of the movement, precisely because the qualities with which it is associated could not fully respect James Bradley’s original urban design or the community of people who re-ignited interest in it. To really do justice to Asbury Park’s past, a past that includes the ambitious, forward-looking casino and Howard Johnson’s buildings, is to remember yesteryear’s attitude—and to realize contemporary design.

Categories: Cities