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story, page 89)—to Burlington. Last year,
Smith bought the 141-year-old Endeavor
firehouse on East Union Street, with plans
to build a Burlington incarnation of the
Brickwall Tavern, their popular Asbury
Park eatery and craft-beer bar. They are
looking for another site to open a third
Porta, the Neapolitan pizza restaurant
and hangout that draws crowds in Asbury
Park and Jersey City.
In addition to the firehouse, the Smith
principals bought four houses in the city.
Kennedy bought two properties, one
that serves as his office and part-time
residence. In the other, a former women’s
shelter, he plans to open a culinary school.
Other believers include the New Hope,
Pennsylvania-based investors from Australia who bought the former Café Gallery,
a waterfront institution for more than
30 years. They are transforming it into
a larger restaurant and coffee roastery
called the Riverview.
Locals also are getting into the act. Burlington native Melanie Pease gutted a house
on a block of East Union (recently designated an arts district) to create a three-story art gallery, 28 East Gallery. Earlier
this year, Doane Academy, a prep school
and prominent institution in Burlington,
bought the 215-year-old Temple B’nai Israel—located a short walk from the waterfront—with plans to turn it into a 300-seat
performing arts theater. And in late spring,
Jay Mahoney of Cherry Hill, John O’Brien
of Eastampton and Bill Pozniak of Cin-naminson opened Third State Brewing just
steps from the light rail station.
When the partners started looking
for a site for the microbrewery two years
ago, they were unaware of Burlington’s
simmering renaissance. “I kept coming
back to this town,” says Mahoney. “I was
drawn to the history, to the look and feel of
the downtown, to its access to the river.”
They’re hoping customers will feel the
same way and venture here from both sides
of the river.
AMID ALL THE COMMERCIAL ACTIVIT Y,
the housing market here remains sluggish. “It’s still a tough sell,” says Chris
Seiler, a realtor for Re/Max World Class
Realty. Burlington suffers from underper-forming schools and a tarnished image. In
a discourging sign, a few of the city’s most
pristine historic homes, priced $300,000
to $400,000, were slow to sell. “It’s only
going to be when things really start happening that we’ll see an appreciation of
our houses,” Seiler says.
Most of the city’s better-maintained
properties are located south of High
Street, between the river and the light
rail line. (The light rail, which runs from
Trenton to Camden, operates daily from
about 6 AM to 9 PM and stops in Burlington every 15 to 30 minutes, depending
on time of day.) East of the tracks, the
neighborhoods tend to be more run down.
Close to 11 percent of the city’s 9,800
residents live below the poverty line;
Burlington’s median household income
is $51,988, compared to a state median of
$71,629, according to the American Community Survey from 2009-2013.
Ballard acknowledges that “there are
issues in some parts of our town,” but
says he hopes the downtown revival
will spur, “a ripple effect through the
entire town, with more incentive to
improve the housing stock and better
investors coming to town.” One such
investor has been the Ingerman Group,
developers of the mixed-use Lumberyard project in Collingswood. Ingerman converted a former knitting mill
near Route 130—at Burlington’s eastern
edge—into 65 new affordable rental
apartments. The Apartments at the Mill
project opened in July; about 60 percent
of the units are rented.
Some longtime residents like Myles
Marks doubt Burlington’s rebirth is im-
minent. In his 64 years here he says, he’s
“seen a lot of tearing down in neighbor-
hoods but nothing being rebuilt.” Taking a
break from fishing off the waterfront pier,
he concludes, “So far, it’s a lot of talk.”
Some say it’s just a matter of time. “A
year, year and a half from now, you’re not
going to recognize Burlington,” predicts
brewmaster Bill Pozniak.
Seiler takes a long view. “I think it’s
going to happen, but not overnight,” she
says. “It’s going to take a while.” ;
Jill P. Capuzzo reports on real estate for
New Jersey Monthly.
ger revenue stream,” says junior partner
Then came Porta. On a visit to New
Hampshire, Brunette had fallen for a restaurant that baked flatbread pizzas in clay
ovens. With Brickwall humming, the partners went a step further, setting their sights
on authentic Neapolitan pizza.
The company jumped into the project
with its signature ability to turn mountains
into molehills. No experience in pizza? No
big deal. Frederica Vilardi, their creative
director, took an eight-week course in
pizza making with Roberto Caporuscio,
president of the Neapolitan Pizza
Association and the owner of Kesté, a restaurant in Greenwich Village.
What they didn’t do was test the idea
with a focus group, a concept common in
the hospitality industry but anathema to
Smith, for whom vision and imagination
take precedence over market research.
“They’re a very creative group with a
background in branding,” notes Marilyn
Schlossbach, owner of several Asbury Park
eateries, including Langosta Lounge and
Pop’s Garage. Smith’s decisions—on every-
thing from a restaurant’s name, location
and design to its menu and ambience—
come “from our bones,” says Lepree.
If they had tested the idea with a focus
group, they undoubtedly would not have
chosen to open a pizzeria in Asbury Park’s
yet-to-be gentrified Cookman Avenue
area. It was generally assumed that the
boardwalk was the place for development.
For Smith, the challenge was the entice-
ment. “We really felt we could create some
hot spots and help bring some spirit to
other parts of the city,” says Jim Watt. In
July 2011, they opened Porta in a huge for-
mer nightclub on Kingsley Street, “where
Bruce Springsteen famously met Clarence
Clemons,” Hinchli;e notes.
“Probably 20 di;erent establishments built their box inside the box that
was there,” says Jim. “We envisioned
that if we stripped all that away, there
was going to be this quite remarkable
space”—a guess based on wabi-sabi, the
Japanese aesthetic that embraces the
beauty of imperfection.
Indeed, part of Porta’s appeal—in addition to authentic Italian dishes beyond
pizza and dancing on weekends—is its
bare-bones architecture: exposed ceiling beams, communal tables (made from
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