Originally published in The Town Paper, Vol. 4, No. 2 - Spring 2002
It is not often that the new urbanism is associated with rock royalty, but it happened this past January in Asbury Park, N.J. The new urbanism came to Asbury Park in the form of a charrette team from DPZ led by Andrés Duany. The team was brought in by the city manager, Terry Weldon, and financed by the developers, Oceanfront Acquisitions, to look over a design prepared for them by planners Clarke Caton Hintz.
To rock enthusiasts, the team was entering unto hallowed ground. Asbury Park has been known in the music industry for decades as home to The Stone Pony, a bar and rock venue comparable to the Fillmore in San Francisco or the House of Blues in Chicago. Rock legends Jon BonJovi, Southside Johnny and, above all, hometown hero Bruce Springsteen cut their musical teeth at the Stone Pony, and the bar remains as a sort of rock pilgrimage site. What's more, visiting veterans have been known to come back, collaborating onstage with fresh acts in outdoor summer concerts fans travel unknown distances to experience.
Throughout the history of the town, Asbury Park has also been known as an entertainment mecca. Planned in 1871 by James A. Bradley, the development was incorporated as the city of Asbury Park in 1887, complete with a casino or gamehouse, a boardwalk, plenty of hotels, large boulevards that opened views to the ocean from deep inside the town, and a lively downtown that served the entire region. By its heyday in the 1930s, Asbury Park was a city known throughout the Northeast, and throughout the country, as an incomparable resort town for family entertainment.
Barely standing today is one of these entertainment buildings, the Palace, an abandoned amusement building of which the base structure dates to 1888. The original structure has been added to numerous times, including the façade bearing the clown-face likeness lovingly referred to as "Tillie," a replication of a motif used on a similar amusement building at Coney Island.
Today the Stone Pony and the Palace, as well as the Casino, the Convention Hall, and a few other abandoned buildings are the only remnants of this past along Asbury Park's waterfront. And they all lie within the Redevelopment Zone created by the city and slated for redevelopment by Oceanfront Acquisitions. The precarious positions in which these remaining buildings lie lead fans of music, carnival, performing arts, and even "Tillie" to petition and protest in opposition to any redevelopment.
Even with all of the town's history, the amount of controversy that surrounded the charrette was surprising. Groups from all imaginable factions came to the public meetings to represent their individual issues. Media of every type, from VH1 to the Wall Street Journal to the local 'zine, tracked the process from beginning to end. But it was the process itself that was most incredible. The charrette team's task was to review the developer's plan, edit and add to it where necessary, and ensure that it will be carried out. Throughout the process, Duany served as mediator between a development company, music fans, preservation advocates, city management, community activists, interested citizens and a city council, just to name a few. And in the end, all groups came away with relatively what they were asking for.
The proposal from DPZ recommended that the Stone Pony indeed be saved, and that the development surrounding it be designed and billed as residential skyboxes to the outdoor summer music events. It recommended that the Palace amusement building be reinforced until further decision is made. It also recommended that the historic Casino and Convention Hall, as well as the beloved boardwalk, be restored and preserved along the retained public waterfront. But the developer would have to be allowed to build density in exchange for these public amenities. And the city would have to demand the highest level of architecture from the developer in order to permit these large buildings. These disparate groups will have to continue to come together to make these proposals a reality. And in the meantime, the rock, and the Stone Pony, will live on.