After promising in typical Trumpian modesty to replace a restaurant at a landmark New York beach with “the finest dining and banquet facility anywhere in the world,” Donald Trump seethes four years later that visitors still must pass what he calls “a rat-infested dump.”
When he announced plans in 2006 for “Trump on the Ocean” at Jones Beach, designed by legendary urban planner Robert Moses, the real estate tycoon envisioned a facility with sweeping views of the Atlantic and beachfront dining for as many as 1,400.
“I was going to build a magnificent building on the boardwalk that would have made Robert Moses envious and proud. It would have been the best building in the entire state parks system.”
Built in 1929 on the southern shore of Long Island just 33 miles from Manhattan, Jones Beach State Park draws 6 million people annually to its 6.5 miles of beach and two-mile boardwalk. It offers landscaped gardens, swimming pools, basketball courts, paddle tennis, shuffleboard, miniature golf, softball fields, volleyball courts, bathhouses and boat basins.
Trump won his latest legal battle with the state last month when an appeals court granted permission for a basement, despite the facility’s location in a flood zone a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean’s pounding tides. But Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office is considering an appeal, and there’s also a court fight over whether Trump owes back rent.
In another lawsuit, Trump is seeking $500 million in damages for delays.
“This is the result of gross incompetence on the part of the state of New York,” Trump railed. “This would have been really successful, and they don’t want that. It would have helped everybody.”
The initial deal, signed in the closing days of Gov. George Pataki’s administration, called for Trump to build a 46,000-square-foot catering hall and operate it for 40 years. The state was to get $200,000 a year in rent, plus sales tax revenues.
That’s when Trump made his “finest in the world” hyperbole.
Things started to change, Trump’s attorney said, when Eliot Spitzer took over the governor’s office in 2007. Around the same time, community groups began asking questions, mostly about Trump’s revised plans to expand it to 76,000 square feet and add a basement kitchen.
They argued that a basement in a flood zone was hazardous to workers in the event of a catastrophic storm. Trump won that argument because the previous restaurant also had a basement kitchen, albeit smaller.
Some critics also questioned the wisdom of attracting $500-a-plate weddings to a beach developed for working-class visitors. Others worried about the traffic impact.
“This was our state historical park, the people’s park, being given to a private developer,” said Pat Friedman, a Garden City Park civic leader, who became the primary leader of the opposition to the Trump project. “Since when do we give our property away?
Maybe he’ll give us one of his hotels?” Trump attorney Steven Schlesinger said more space was necessary to make it economically viable as a year-round facility. He contended that although top-end catering was envisioned, there also were plans for a modestly priced restaurant.
“Would there be some weddings at $500 a plate? It’s possible. But we could also see a lot of $9 hamburgers being sold,” the lawyer said.
Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. However, state officials have said repeatedly that Trump's license agreement with the parks agency for the site required him to obtain all required permits for building in a flood zone and that he should have known that would be a detailed and time-consuming process.
Before the Jones Beach row, Trump enjoyed a cordial relationship with the state parks department. In 2006, he donated 436 acres in New York City’s northern suburbs for a state park.
Don Carbonare, walking with a group of friends on the Jones Beach boardwalk, called the dormant construction site “the Trump Dump.” “I don’t like what he’s building here,” Carbonare said.
“It’s too big for the beach. I could see a restaurant here. I’m not against that, but you need a little more common sense here. If Trump wants to build a restaurant here, fine. It just doesn’t have to be some huge monstrosity like Atlantic City.”
Jones Beach visitor Bob Enright disagreed. “A small segment, they don’t want Jones Beach touched,” Enright said. “We understand that. But this place, if you walk around here it’s falling apart. He was guaranteeing $200,000 a year. He was going to put up a nice building, but you get a small faction that don’t want it, they go to court, and all of a sudden you have to put up with this.” Trump said he remains open to settling the disputes.
“I’m not slamming the door,” he said, conceding he has often had to contend with controversy over his projects. He’s also getting grief over a golf course project in Scotland and has fought opposition to projects in New York City.
“If someone else had come in and called it the Jones Beach Ballroom instead of Trump on the Ocean, it probably would have been easier to get through,” he said. “But I tell you, they would have done one-tenth the business we would have done.”
-With Bill Bleyer