New Fire Island Pines Commercial Property Owners Reveal Plans

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 7, 2010

Three New Yorkers - Matthew Blesso, Seth Weissman and Andrew Kirtzman - have made headlines with the purchase of harborfront commercial property in Fire Island Pines. The fact that the commercial real estate transaction was by far the largest in the history of all of Fire Island would have been news enough.

But the three new owners are inheriting what may be the most storied tract of gay geography this side of the Castro. The Pavilion, in Kirtzman's words, "may well be the most famous gay disco in the world." The Tea Dances (the term, which originated in the Pines, has become the norm for non-latenight parties) began in the 1960s - perhaps the first such semi-public dances anywhere. The Botel (more recently known as Ciel), the Pines' only standalone hotel, has been a landmark in the community for 50 years.

Along with its smaller neighbor a quarter-mile to the west, Cherry Grove, the Pines is one of the two primarily (but by no means entirely) gay communities that has made "Fire Island" synonymous with "gay" for much of the world (despite the fact that the remaining 15 or so settled areas are heterosexual). The Pines itself has established a reputation as the most glamorous and exclusive gay summer resort in the world.

Their property commands the majority of the frontage on the beautiful harbor entrance to the island town. It constitutes the vast majority (not "nearly all," as described in an otherwise excellent recent Gawker piece on the transaction) of the commercial property in the small downtown section of the community. Cars are verboten and residences cart their belongings in children's red wagons along wooden boardwalks rolling amidst the sand dunes.

If the community is expensive, the atmosphere is adamantly casual. "The Pines is a small town with a cosmopolitan feel," is how Kirtzman describes it. "It has its own traditions and its own culture. There's an expectation that you can walk barefoot into stores and restaurants and yet experience a professional level of service and quality. That's going to be our expectation as well."

How It Started: ’A Beautiful Friendship’

The properties, which include a gym, several storefronts and two restaurants, as well as the bar above the Pavilion and a huge pool deck, were originally not for sale.

Kirtzman says owning the Madison, an upscale guesthouse, "whet my appetite, because I saw a pent-up demand for quality accommodations."

Kirtzman, who grew up summering in a straight community to the west of the Pines, owns an oceanfront home. The well-known journalist (he anchored a prestigious local political program and wrote what is considered the standard biography of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as well as an account of the Bernie Madoff scandal) has been running The Madison for the past few years.

Located on a residential walk, the Madison is understated, tasteful, elegant - and expensive. At the height of the summer season, a weekend there can stretch into four figures.

"I started thinking about bigger things to do," the former CBS newsman says. He mentioned his interest to someone who in turn introduced him to Weissman. As it happened, he was renting in a share house next door to his own home.

In Kirtzman's words, "a beautiful friendship was born." The two spent a lot of time hashing out how they would improve on the Botel. Soon, their discussions included the other harbor properties.

A Triumvirate Is Born

Although only 26, Weissman already has substantial experience in high-end real estate investment, for Goldman Sachs, a private investment capital firm and with his brother. More significantly, he brings a background in the hospitality industry.

Weissman wanted to bring on one more person to share the burden of management and capital. They were introduced to a very few people before meeting Matthew Blesso.

Although he is not gay, Blesso was already familiar with Fire Island. His brother has run a share house in Kismet, the westernmost community on Fire Island (with its own storied reputation as a haven for aging swingers). One of his employees had been a regular visitor to the Pines.

Blesso brings perhaps the most depth in real estate to the table. A Manhattan developer, he is well known as a "comer" in the clubby, cutthroat world of New York real estate dominated by outsized personalities like Donald Trump. (He has also taken some good-natured ribbing for his buff body, which should ease his social transition into the Pines.)

The Seller

Eric von Kuersteiner had owned the property with his partner (in life and business) Tony Roncalli, a partner in the tony law firm Chadbourne & Parke, for six years.

He bought it from John Whyte, a legendary former model and bon vivant for whom the Pines new Community House is named. Whyte had helped establish the Pavilion as "the" disco on the summer gay scene, in competition with the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove and the more intimate Sip 'n' Twirl in the Pines. He also initiated the now-legendary Tea Dances.

By the time von Kuersteiner bought the complex, however, shortly before Whyte's death, there had been significant deterioration in the physical plant. The Pavilion's floor tilted, the Botel had developed a reputation as a cinderblock barracks, and the stores in between the two had become aged shacks.

Immediately upon purchase - itself a hugely significant outlay of cash for properties that thrive mainly between Memorial Day and Labor Day - von Kuersteiner set about on an ambitious plan to rehabilitate the buildings and what was inside them.

Along the way, he built a mini-empire of his own. He bought the Pines' main freight ferry service (highly important in an isolated community where everything has to be imported over the water from Long Island). He started his own home construction firm.

He jump-started his own mega-party, Ascension, a fund-raiser that takes place on a makeshift dance floor on the Atlantic Beach in August. And he took over production of Bay Dance, a fund-raiser over the July Fourth Weekend at a private home.

He also set about to tear down the old Pavilion and built a huge new mega-structure. He rebranded the Botel as Ciel. He upgraded one of Whyte's restaurant properties and even added Starbucks coffee to the mix.

He started a food market in competition with Pines Pantry, a grocery store that many considered a mainstay of the community. He took over the management of the flower shop and the town's only gym.

Some accused him of catering to a younger crowd at the expense of the homeowners, most of whom tend to be older (hardly surprising in a community where summer homes now routinely sell for seven figures).

Von Kuersteiner had his defenders, who argued that the town was acquiring a reputation as "Boca North." Even his detractors will credit him with attracting young people to the Pines, which has helped invigorate the community.

"We purchased the Pines six short years ago with the intention to not only preserve its history, but to reinvent it as well; to make the Pines relevant and increase its popularity with the new gay generation," he says.

He cite the huge amount paid for his property as proof of what he achieved. "I believe we were successful, so much so that this generation voluntarily approached us with a keen interest to purchase."

For Sale? For Enough Money

When the triumvirate initially approached von Kuersteiner through his broker, Jon Wilner, he hadn't put his property on the market. But, as they say, everything is for sale for the right price.

"When I was approached, I was approached alone," von Kuersteiner recalls. "I was told it was Seth and his money."

Wilner, who heads Island Properties, a real estate brokerage that serves the Pines, had represented Whyte in the sale to von Kuersteiner. Now, six years later, he was being approached by Weissman.

"Seth came to me in August and asked me if Eric was interested in selling," Wilner recalls. "I said it was not for sale. Then he made an offer."

Wilner continued negotiations until a contract was signed on Dec. 1, 2009.
For his part, von Kuersteiner told Weissman of plans to redo the Pavilion and showed him an ambitious green project for the storefront properties assembled by a Yale University architectural team.

The three negotiated a deal that left von Kuersteiner with a nice rate of return on his investment. The new owners, however, believe that they can recoup their investment by what they see as maximizing revenue.

Of the purchase, he will admit, "I think it's a lot of money," and adds, "I'm happy with the price we got. Anytime you have new energy, new ideas, it's always a good thing for the community."

Von Kuersteiner says he and his partner wanted to spend summer weekends relaxing. Besides owning a home in the Pines, von Kuersteiner retains ownership of the Coastline Freight service, as well as Bay Dance and Ascension, which were not on the table and will be run under the aegis of his Fund in the Sun Foundation.

Wilner says he is proud to have represented the seller of the property twice in six years. "I sold for John Whyte, and here I am selling to these guys," he says. "I was very proud to sell to Eric and Tony, and I also feel very proud to sell to Seth, Matthew and Andrew. They're three great guys who are going to build on what Eric did."

The Pavilion: Happy Music, Crowd Flow

Although not the most productive part of the purchase in terms of dollar value, many people will be scrutinizing changes in the Pavilion. This is a music-mad town where the previous night's DJ's performance is one of the main topics of conversation around pool decks.

The Pavilion has been the launching pad for the careers of several top gay DJs. Its status as "the" summer gay club was immortalized in books like "Dancer from the Dance."

Kirtzman, who knows his way around a dance floor, hopes to reprogram the music to a more traditional "Fire Island sound"; that is, upbeat and lyrical.

"We're going to address ourselves to the music," Kirtzman says. "The music has been too dark, too heavy, too oppressive. It's Fire Island! Every Friday night should not sound like the Black Party."

The three men will also tweak the physical plant to make it more user-friendly.

"Everyone complained about the same problems there," he says. "There's no flow, no way to get around inside. The sound system had problems. It was hard to get a drink. It was a boring experience. The Pavilion needs someone to put some love into it. I'm determined to do that."

They have already commissioned architectural renderings. Von Kuersteiner had also planned to redo his own project; he points out that the Town of Brookhaven, the Long Island jurisdiction that oversees the Pines, is notoriously slow moving when it comes to approving projects there.

Guy Smith, the lighting designer who transforms Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan every year for the Black Party and has become perhaps the best-known lighting director on the gay club circuit, has been hired as a consultant to redo the Pavilion's lights, as well as all of the other properties.

Sound engineers are assessing the sound system. The three partners want to connect the upstairs Glo Lounge with the huge downstairs dance space - something von Kuersteiner says he had planned as well.

"You can't escape the the music and the nightclub," Blesso explains. "So we have come up with a plan to put stairs inside the Pavilion to connect the two."

The Blue Whale Gets a Redo

There are two restaurants on the property. The Bay Bar, a casual restaurant next to the Pavilion, has been renamed Canteen.

The more ambitious project is a significant rebranding of the venerable Blue Whale. As stated elsewhere, the owners of Almond, a restaurant in the Flatiron section of Manhattan and in Bridgehampton, in the exclusive aggregation of towns on the East End of Long Island known as the Hamptons, have been brought in as partners.

The new owners, however, counter previous reports that the Blue Whale is going to morph into the kind of chichi eatery where exquisite food is served in portions inversely proportional to the price. There will be no A List section or a Siberia for the peons.

"The goal is simply to bring the Pines a quality restaurant," Kirtzman says. "The prices are already high. Our strategy is to create a place people want to go to. Right now, the hotel and Blue Whale don't have a very large following."

"We want to upgrade the dining experience," Weissman adds. "We want a place where you can have a boozy brunch for two hours and the kind of high-quality meal you would get at a great restaurant."

Kirtzman counters an assertion in a New York Times story on the purchase that described the proposed menu as incorporating dishes like "foie gras mousse with kumquat basil marmalade."

"We're not turning into an upscale restaurant," Kirtzman says. "The Blue Whale will be light, with a lot of seafood - not at all French heavy."

"We're not glitzing it up," Weissman asserts.

Making a Hotel More Homey

Along with the Community House, which is situated in the residential section of the Pines, Ciel is the most imposing building in the town. It is also perhaps the most reviled.

After a spectacular fire over 50 years ago that was the impetus for the founding of the local volunteer fire department, it was rebuilt with cinderblocks, which may make it less susceptible to fire but gives it a hulking, even forbidding presence in a town dominated by lighter wood structures.

Kirtzman apparently plans to assume hands-on management of the hotel. He doesn't predict a conflict with his continued ownership of the Madison.

"The bed-and-breakfast experience is very different from being in the middle of the town," Weissman says. Besides, "between the two, there are still barely 40 rooms."

"The Madison will remain an upscale alternative for people who want that experience," Kirtzman adds.

For now, they plan to lower the room prices somewhat. "The price is high but nobody stays there, because it's not worth the price," Blesso says.

Von Kuersteiner, however, counters that the hotel was full every weekend during the summer season. "The hotel was never meant to be a high-end experience," he says, adding, "We were planning to redo it."

The new owners say they plan a full-scale renovation that will transform it, in Blesso's words, into "a beautiful, full-scale, proper, boutique-style hotel."

A General Store

The Food Market, tucked into a ground-floor space of the Pavilion complex, will become what the three describe as a general store.

Don't expect a pickle barrel and a group of men in overalls playing checkers around a wood-burning stove. The store will be more Andrew Christian than Andy Griffith, with some prepared food, sundries, apparel - and hardware.

The community's only hardware store closed at the end of last season to make way for a liquor store, which moved from the harbor stores sandwiched by the Pavilion and the hotel.

The storefronts remaining in the other spaces have grandfathered leases and will remain, at least for the time being. Index, a men's clothing store von Kuersteiner had run that is tucked into the hotel, will return under a new name and third-party management. Previous to Index, it had been an outlet of All-American Boy, a men's apparel store (since closed) in New York City.

Von Kuersteiner had installed a gym - as much of a necessity in the body-conscious Pines as a beauty salon in the Hamptons - that extended into the huge pool area behind the harborfront stores. The new owners plan an ambitious redesign of the entire back-deck space, as well as the areas behind the hotel and the Blue Whale.

Much of that area is now used for storage and maintenance facilities. The three consider the space underutilized. They say they had considered the Yale plan but are completely rethinking the entire back area - what Blesso describes as a "holistic approach."

"If there were no building already there and we could redesign it in one season," they might have gone with the Yale group's design, he notes. As it is, he says, "Our design is more tempered. We're trying to re-imagine the space. It's more about circulation.Æ

"I've always been amazed that it's a 9,000-square-foot pool deck, and it's used for a gym and to do laundry," Kirtzman says. "It's an astonishingly underused resource. There's a great potential to add exciting rituals to Tea."

They hope to bring back some of the glamor Whyte had brought to the space with his fashion shows that were among the first AIDS benefits.

Eventually, they hope to integrate Canteen with the pool deck, as well as create a natural circulation of people between the back deck, Canteen, the Pavilion and the hotel.

The three new owners make a point that they are listening the community and will attempt to satisfy the wishers of homeowners and renters. For the past several months, they have been collecting input from a range of Pines community members.

They have been holding dinners with groups of various ages to get a feel for what people want. They have also met with Ron Martin and Jay Pagano, two of the leaders of the powerful local property owners' association.

"We've tried to find a cross-section of the island to give us a diversity of opinions," Kirtzman explains. "We talked to people who represented eveyr pocket of the Pines. We talked to renters with shares who were in their 20s, some in their 30s, some in their 40s and 50s."

The new owners may find their greatest challenge in trying to satisfy everyone. They certainly will not tamper with Tea, the hugely popular weekend ritual in which much of the town congregates on the Blue Whale deck to chat and inside the cleared-out restaurant to dance before re-assembling in the upstairs Glo Lounge.

In this tiny community, people discuss every nuance of change with a certainty of opinion that would put the housewives of "The Music Man" to shame. They know - and expect - that their every move will be scrutinized, analyzed and critiqued.

They credit von Kuersteiner with successfully attracting a younger crowd but believe that all age groups need to be included in their plans.

"We love the new blood he's brought in, and we're going to encourage that," Kirtzman says. "That doesn't mean you have to lose sight of the fact that the Pines, at heart, is a small town. We talk about this at every meeting - how to improve things without compromising the things about the Pines that brought people there in the first place. The Pines needs to be the Pines. Don't change what isn't broken."

"There was a segment of the population that was left out," Blesso adds. "We want to attract a younger crowd. At the same time, there's an existing group of homeowners that's not up all night."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).