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BUILDER PLANS TO RAZE TROUBLED CORNER

The former home of Wicker Rose furnishings, foreground, and the Texaco station at Willow Drive and Branch Avenue are slated for demolition, the new owner says. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

You might call it the most accursed corner of Little Silver.

Once the location of four gas stations and other businesses, the juncture of Willow Drive and Branch Avenue has been beset by pollution problems and financial chicanery in recent years, with the result that a swath of its properties have sat idle and unproductive.

An attempt to auction off  a block of the properties two years ago bombed. Investors wanted nothing to do with them, said Ray Smith of the commercial real estate brokerage Stafford Smith Realty.

Now, however, Smith himself is ready to take a chance on redeveloping one stretch of the corner, he says.

On Thursday, Smith closed on a deal to acquire five adjoining properties that were once in the portfolio of Solomon Dwek, the Ocean Township man who went on a real-estate buying tear with tens of millions of dollars in funds he later admitted having swindled from banks.

Referring to investors who stayed away from failed auction, Smith said, “what’s different about me is that I took it upon myself to invest money and time to assess the extent of the environmental issue.”

“When I see something at that corner of Little Silver, opposite the train station, being underutilized, I find that very attractive,” he said.

Smith, who was hired in 2010 to sell the properties for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, said that because of the complexity of his acquisition, which involved the assumption of mortgages and environmental cleanup credits, “I still don’t know how much it’s going to cost me.” A deed from the transaction has not yet been recorded with Monmouth County.

Smith tells redbankgreen he is several months away from filing a plan with the borough for a makeover of his new holdings, which include the abandoned Hunter’s Texaco station, a retail structure that once housed Wicker Rose furniture, and three houses, all on the north side of Willow Drive.

All will be torn down. What replaces them remains to be disclosed, and will likely be a combination of retail and office space. But Smith said he will not attempt residential development there, because the costs of environmental remediation to allow for housing make such a project not feasible.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bob Neff, who announced Smith’s purchase in a press release Thursday, also says that the vacant Exxon Station across Willow Drive from Smith’s properties is set to reopen, perhaps as early as next month, under the management of “a company that buys and reopens closed gas stations.”

That’s all the better for his plan, said Smith.

“Certainly, any business that’s closed there has an air of failure, and that’s basically what what we want to start correcting in what I see as a very viable corner of Little Silver,” he said.

Neff said he welcomes the changes. Smith “assured me he is interested in developing the property in a manner that fits in with the character of Little Silver, and that will take into consideration the property’s location near a busy
intersection,” he said.

We’ll be mindful going forward of the concerns that any proposal such as this raises,” Neff said. But the sale to Smith, a who knows the area after 35 years of doing realty business, “is a good step forward toward revitalizing this property in a manner that will benefit Little Silver,” Neff said in a prepared statement.

 

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