New Fire Island Pines Commercial Property Owners Reveal Plans
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.)
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."