Seaside Boardwalk Different, Still Rebuilding, 5 Years After Fire

Photo by Peter James Smith

SEASIDE PARK – Even The New York Times wrote about it. It was also on national TV news. Less than a year after Superstorm Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore, the hard-hit neighboring boroughs of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park faced another disaster, a boardwalk fire that destroyed nearly 50 businesses, and had the winds not shifted when and how they did, possibly the boroughs themselves.

Investigators would eventually conclude it was faulty wiring, corroded by Sandy, that sparked the fire that originated at Kohr’s Frozen Custard, a building that sat on the boardwalk near Porter Avenue, the dividing line between the Park and the Heights. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds pushed the fire from south to north, with everything in its path destroyed. The blaze broke out around 2 p.m. It took hundreds of firefighters from across the state several hours to bring it under control.

Heights lifer Nick Dionisio spoke with The Times Sept. 13, 2013, just a day after that “all-call” fire tore through three blocks of boardwalk businesses.

Of course he came back: Third-generation boardwalk guy Nick Dionisio came back after Sandy, and rebuilt after the fire of 2013. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

Dionisio rented two stands that he ran with his father, just south in the Park from the Kohr’s building. He is a third-generation “Boardwalk guy,” as The Times described him. Dioinisio peeled shrimp as a young boy in his grandfather’s clam bar, and opened two fried-fish places with his father after a career in banking left him missing the boards.

The businesses went under water, literally: Sandy drove nearly 10 feet of water onto the boardwalk, destroying equipment and leaving those who came back scrambling to open something for Memorial Day the following May.

The water didn’t wipe them out. But 10 days after Labor Day that year, the fire did.

It’s now a dreary post-Labor Day afternoon in 2018. Dionisio was standing outside Park Seafood, the sign boasting that tasters will be treated to award-winning crab cakes.

This was Park Seafood’s first season open. Dionisio has another stand that sells tacos, up on the Heights side, which opened earlier. He pointed south to where his original two businesses stood, not far from the original Kohr’s stand. An outdoor wedding venue now occupies that space. A lot of properties changed hands, whether owners were selling or tenants not renewing.

His father died not long after Sandy hit, so he didn’t see the rebuilding efforts.

“I owed it to him,” Dionisio said. “He would be so excited.”

But it’s not what it was, he added. A lot of properties have changed hands, owners having sold or tenants deciding against renewing, rebuilding.

“In fact, many of them have left or wouldn’t rebuild,” Bob Matthies, mayor of Seaside Park, told The Berkeley Times. “You need to realize too, many of the businesses had leases from the major property owners.” The old fare of stuffed animal prizes and funnel cakes has been replaced with upper-scale juice bars and coffee kiosks.

Promises made: Kiosks stand unfinished, empty on the Seaside Heights side of the boardwalk. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

If anyone dares to find a silver lining, it’s that the boardwalk has gotten a 21st Century facelift. Very little looks like what younger Baby Boomer and older Gen Xers remember walking and riding on Saturday nights.

The 40-plus-year shore icon The Sawmill was largely spared from the blaze, thanks to an external sprinkler system on its east side that saved the building. Just to its north, Funtown Pier amusement park, which already suffered devastating losses from Sandy, was completely destroyed.

Different groups open pieces of the boardwalk, and of course, it stretches between two boroughs with two different codes and two different sets of players. Funtown Pier, in the Park, is owned by William Major. He could not be reached by press time, but the last reports from 2016 stated he’s decided against rebuilding. The Park reexamined and updated its master plan, and doubled the size of allowable amusement rides from 50 to 100 feet. But that stretch isn’t enough to make rebuilding worthwhile, with Major wanting 200- and 300-foot amusements to draw thrill-seeking spenders.

“We support our property owners and businesses, if there’s something that can be done within code, we encourage that,” Matthies said. The borough and Funtown Pier representatives went back and forth for 18 months, but ultimately, residents weren’t interested in large amusement rides in their quiet, family town. “Whether or not one of the owners or entities wants to come in and build something like that, they would have to submit a site plan, which would be considered with public hearings. As a mayor, you always like to get input from public. You want to generate income, but this is a neighborhood here.”

The site of the original Kohr’s Frozen Custard, where the fire originated. It’s now an outdoor wedding chapel. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

Seaside Park took the brunt of the damage in the fire, but about a block of Seaside Heights boardwalk was consumed. North of Porter, construction has stopped on vendor kiosks; phase one of a two-part project approved by the Heights. Adjacent properties are owned by Belle Freeman and Richard and Mary Peterson, according to public records.

The project’s first phase, which was to have been completed in 2018, included temporary outdoor seating and bars and the vendor kiosks. Christopher Vaz, Seaside Heights business administrator, said the borough has to stop the construction of the half-finished kiosks due to problems. Those now sit, without siding and vacant, on the boardwalk.

The second phase, most of which would have been completed in 2019, included an oceanfront wedding venue, pool club, beach cabanas, and “future building” that would have been constructed after 2019. Those plans were drawn up by Mode Architecture and presented back in February.

Photo courtesy Grace Patrisso Bronzino

“The Seaside Heights section is still kind of floundering on the part of the owners,” Vaz said. The planning board approved the presented plans. “They were supposed to move into phase 2 about now, building permanent structures, but the only thing we’ve seen built are the kiosks. …Construction has stopped, and we are very disappointed. We are extremely disappointed. We were made great promises, and those promises have not been kept.”

The Berkeley Times was directed by the borough to Peter Pascarella for information on the pier progress. He told the newspaper that “Only Belle Freeman Property Owner, The Peterson family or SS Park “Funtown Assoc.” should conduct any such interview. I, however, continue, decline any such statement at this time.” They could not be reached as of press time.

Seaside Heights lost more than $200 million in tax ratables between Sandy and the fire, Vaz said. The borough is part of a transitional aid program, but was hoping the boardwalk would have been fully redeveloped by now. Despite that, they are meeting budget forecasts.

“The future is bright,” Vaz said.

“There is only one way to go,” Dionisio, back at his seafood place, said. “Think positive.”