During the Gilded Age, Long Branch was an elegant seaside town where Astors, Goulds and Drexels repaired for summer R&R. The glory days ended almost a century ago, however, when the rich discovered new haunts and this northern New Jersey shore town fell into steady decline. By the 1980s, vestiges of its storied past vanished as fires decimated the boardwalk and the legendary fishing pier, the longest on the New Jersey coast.

Now, a public-private partnership is betting that Long Branch can shine again — and not just in summer. The partnership is planning a $70 million redevelopment project called Pier Village that will bring new housing and 100,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurants to a 16-acre beachfront site. Ground was broken on Pier Village last spring, and completion is expected in 2004.

Why bet so heavily on a town that has been down so long? For one thing, most of Long Branch's 31,000 residents live there year-round, unlike other seasonal towns scattered along the shore that are vacated during the winter months. In addition, “Long Branch has this really great amenity — the ocean,” says Greg Russo, vice president of Hoboken, N.J.-based Applied Development Co., master developer of the site. He predicts that the project's 700 rental units will lease up quickly, and people will flock to its retail shops year-round.

The year-round traffic is key. But, Russo says, “Long Branch isn't just a seasonal community like other towns along the coast here.” The city is now part of the north Jersey suburban sprawl: More than 25 million people live within a one-hour drive of Long Branch, and Census bureau data shows that Monmouth County's 2002 population of 629,836 last July is up 2.4% from 2000.

To draw the crowds, Pier Village will include a central pavilion for seasonal activities. Another draw is a proposed ferry service, which would cut the Manhattan commute by 10 minutes and make a day at the beach more feasible for New Yorkers.

In addition, Williams Jackson Ewing, developer of Pier Village's retail component, has a great batting average. The firm redeveloped retail space at Baltimore's Harborplace, Washington's Union Station, and Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.

Lehr Jackson, principal of the Baltimore-based firm, believes that Pier Village will work like Harborplace in Baltimore. “Harborplace spawned a 30-year renaissance in the Inner Harbor area. We're using the same concepts here,” he says.

Like Harborplace, Pier Village's retail layout features an urban design combining walkways and bike paths with several public plazas. A boardwalk will also be built on the beachfront. “The idea is that high-density residential area will make the commercial space viable all year round,” says Adam Schneider, mayor of Long Branch. “We expect property values to rise after the Pier Village redevelopment is finished.”

The State of New Jersey has kicked in $11.2 million in funds for the redevelopment. Pier Village is also part of a master redevelopment plan called Long Branch Tomorrow, which is consistent with the development protocols of the New Jersey State Plan. This larger plan is designed to streamline the approvals process and coordinate funding from various state agencies.

Still, the history of redevelopment along New Jersey's northern coastline has few success stories. Asbury Park, a few towns south, has seen a surge in housing prices as New Yorkers rediscover that 19th century resort. But its redevelopment is still a work in progress. Jackson says: “Pier Village will offer something that doesn't exist along the Jersey shore — an upscale entertainment and cultural destination that is active year round.”