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Montauk turns upscale, delighting some — but not everyone

George Filopoulous purchased the 90-year-old Gurney's Inn from

George Filopoulous purchased the 90-year-old Gurney's Inn from the Monte family in 2013 for $40 million and transformed the 11-acre property. Renovations include the nearby Residences at Gurney's. He's on the balcony of one of the residences for sale, June 30, 2016. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Arbor, a new restaurant on Fort Pond Road in Montauk, features a French chef and a $98 seafood dish in a setting described as “casual chic.”

Last summer the property was the site of Ciao by the Beach, an eatery known for its menu offerings of giant meatballs and fried Oreos, mismatched gray-shingled exterior and outdoor music that drew noise complaints.

The $2.7 million sale in October was followed by an extensive renovation and a new Mediterranean-style menu.

Similarly, an investor bought the nearly century-old Gurney’s Inn for $40 million in 2013, renamed it Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, and spent more than $25 million refurbishing it.

Montauk, many say, is going upscale.

Several other landmark commercial properties in the hamlet have recently been sold or gone on the market for millions of dollars, among them Gosman’s Dock Restaurant, a 477-seat eatery on Montauk Harbor that includes 14 acres of developed and vacant land. It was placed on sale in May for $52.5 million.

The multimillion-dollar purchases and pricey makeovers reflect changes taking place across the East End fishing village that was once ignored by the Hamptons elite.

That concerns some residents, who worry the village will become too rich to recognize.

“We have Bridgehampton and Southampton,” said Marjorie Spitz, who owns a vacation home in Montauk. “Do we really need another one of those?”

Montauk’s changes reveal another trend: Many of the new investors have a personal connection to the hamlet, either as homeowners or longtime visitors, reversing a pattern where those with no previous links to Montauk snapped up real estate to open nightclubs and other establishments that have often attracted young, disruptive summertime visitors.

During last year’s Fourth of July weekend, East Hampton Town police received a record number of complaints about rowdy behavior that led town and law enforcement officials to institute several measures to make Montauk a place where families could feel comfortable vacationing again.

“Anyone talking about Montauk [and last summer’s chaos] is missing the story of what’s really going on there,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, a former East Hampton Town supervisor who along with his sister, Helen Ficalora, owns The Breakers Motel in Montauk.

“There’s no question Montauk is moving in an upscale direction, and a lot was being done for this summer,” Schneiderman said of construction and renovation projects, adding that there have been room updates and other improvements at The Breakers.

“Now there’s a new higher-end clientele coming to Montauk that are looking for that exclusive experience like a Saint-Tropez or St. Barts.”

Montauk Chamber of Commerce president Paul Monte said that over the past six to eight years there were real-estate transactions that “brought a new element and new money into Montauk and brought a new [less desirable] demographic as well.”

Monte — his uncle, Nick Monte, used to own Gurney’s Inn — said that more recently, however, there has been an influx of new owners, many of whom have “a connection to and love of Montauk through vacationing or owning second homes here or coming out and surfing. It seems to me they all wanted to get involved in helping Montauk and bringing Montauk to the next evolution.”

Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton Town supervisor, also noted that a growing group of investors who have a history with Montauk are getting into the game.

“It’s very positive for the future of Montauk,” Cantwell said. “When they’re living in Montauk full time or part time, they’re more likely to make investments in what people really want in Montauk because they have a better understanding of the way of life in Montauk and are more sensitive to being a good owner. They understand the community values that make Montauk great, and they have a greater stake in the community.”

French flavor

Steve Jauffrineau, 43, is managing director of Arbor and the bayside Duryea’s Lobster Deck a half-mile away. Jauffrineau was born and raised in France before moving to New York City when he was 16. He was managing director of the popular French bistro La Goulue, which closed in 2009, and was general manager at Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, where he lives year-round with his wife and two children.

“It’s a good vibe for us,” Jauffrineau said of Shelter Island, where he bought a home in 2012. “Montauk has a little of that vibe — the unHampton, so to speak. They still have a rustic feel and a tremendous amount of charm.”

Billionaire Marc Rowan, 53, co-founder of the Manhattan-based private equity firm Apollo Global Management, purchased Ciao by the Beach and bought the 80-year-old family-owned Duryea’s for $6.2 million in 2014.

He has a house in Southampton and became familiar with Montauk during bike trips that he said always ended at Duryea’s.

Duryea’s still has its signature takeout window, but the lobster shack/fish market was refurbished this spring with a more sophisticated décor of white and teak. Massive globe lights covered in fish net hang from the ceiling, and gone are the plastic tables and chairs and the BYOB policy. Customers now have a choice of beer, wine or champagne.

George Filopoulous, 46, runs a real estate investment firm in Manhattan and owns a home in Montauk. He purchased the 90-year-old Gurney’s Inn from the Monte family in 2013 for $40 million and transformed the 11-acre property. The overhaul includes dozens of new oceanfront rooms, an updated beach club and common spaces, five new food and beverage venues and a redesigned signature ocean-fed seawater swimming pool, the only one in the United States, according to Gurney’s owners.

Renovations also include the neighboring Residences at Gurney’s, formerly the Panoramic View Resort & Residence. The 12 duplex and triplex-style homes — four of which have sold — are priced from $4.7 million to $12 million and come with butler service.

Filopoulous said he and his wife, who have two children, bought a summer home in Montauk 10 years ago.

“We used to vacation out here [in Montauk] when we were kids,” he said. “We’ve had a very strong connection to Montauk all our lives.”

Filopoulous said he and others like him are making business investments in the hamlet in increasing numbers. Trail’s End, Montauk’s oldest restaurant, opened this spring as The Tauk at Trail’s End, after being purchased for $2.15 million in November by Michael Nasti, a businessman who has spent vacations in Montauk since 1993 and plans a complete renovation before the 2017 summer season.

“This type of investment is important to these kind of places — [investments by] someone who understands the area and has enjoyed it and projects that into their projects,” Filopoulous said. “It makes things feel permanent, not transient.”

Jauffrineau agrees and points to a turnaround in progress.

“We’re all contributing to the community and want to be part of the solution [to the hamlet’s summertime problems],” he said. “There are no new players out there who feel disconnected to what’s happening . . . I think it’s a turning point.”

Worries about character

Some with histories in Montauk are concerned that too much upscaling will downgrade the hamlet’s character, which includes a comforting “shabby” vibe and John’s Drive-In, advertised as an “enduring quick-serve burger joint” that dishes up “comfort eats and ice cream in vintage surroundings.”

Spitz, whose primary residence is New York City, started visiting Montauk two decades ago. She got married there and bought a vacation house in the hamlet 10 years ago.

“I have such a love for Montauk,” said Spitz, who works for a corporate wellness program. “When you drive on that stretch [Napeague] going into town you just feel different — the air’s different, everything’s different. We thought for many years Montauk was our own little secret, and we didn’t want it to change.”

Spitz, 51, said it is OK to have varieties of properties, but she doesn’t want changes to come at the expense of those things that make Montauk special.

“Everyone wants the soul of Montauk to remain intact . . . we’ll see,” she said.

John Chimples, 58, a film editor with a second home and an office in Montauk, said he began visiting the hamlet 30 years ago to surf.

“I’m actually fine with it [the high-end renovations and development] as long as the people doing it show respect for the community and the environment,” Chimples said. “Some people have been immune to that and have run into trouble, others are coming in and doing it with a level of taste and style.”

But he cautioned that too much upscaling can push the middle class — a big part of Montauk’s DNA — out.

“It’s making it more difficult for blue-collar locals to afford things here, and I think the middle class is shrinking and being forced out of town,” Chimples said. “Forty years ago you couldn’t give anything away in Montauk.”

But Monte and others said they believe Montauk’s soul can’t be bought at any cost.

“I think Montauk will always have a bit of a mix,” he said. “You’ll have your working-class tradesman and fisherman and your hedge-fund billionaire surfer with a trust fund — that’s what everyone loves about Montauk. I don’t think anyone wants the character of Montauk to be diminished.”

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