High on the New Jersey Palisades and home to the world’s busiest bridge, Fort Lee, NJ sits on the fence between city and suburb.
“It’s like being in the city without being in the city,” says Andrew Sloan, who paid $130,000 in 2018 for a one-bedroom co-op in Fort Lee. Mr. Sloan, 34, wanted to be near Brooklyn, where he works as a construction project manager, and also close to his parents’ home in New Milford, NJ, about 15 minutes northwest.
When Jacqueline and Michael Kates were downsizing a four-bedroom home in Teaneck, NJ, they chose Fort Lee not only for its proximity to town, but also for its large selection of condos and co-ops. Since Mr. Kates, 80, a semi-retired lawyer, and Ms. Kates, 77, a former mayor of Teaneck, bought a two-bedroom co-op there for $410,000 in 2014, they have adapted to living in a denser surroundings.
“You don’t see the same kind of green space you see in Teaneck,” Ms. Kates said. But the city council has been trying to create small parks that preserve a piece of nature, she added, and she likes the view of New York City.
Empty nesters from nearby suburbs, such as the Kateses, “are a consistently strong market” for Fort Lee, said Nelson Chen, a real estate broker and the president of the Chen Agency, in Fort Lee. The council is also appealing to commuters, including many who are now returning to their New York City offices after working remotely during the pandemic, Mr Chen said.
For all residents of the borough, the George Washington Bridge, which approximately four million vehicles cross each month, is central to life in Fort Lee. “It’s brought us such incredible prosperity,” said Mark J. Sokolich, the mayor, who grew up in Fort Lee. “But it has also given us headaches; it has brought us traffic.”
In 2013, traffic in Fort Lee became the center of one of New Jersey’s more outlandish political scandals, then allies of the then-government. Chris Christie retaliated against Mr Sokolich for not approving the governor’s re-election bid by closing lanes leading to the bridge, causing four days of gridlock. Mr Sokolich said he holds no grudges, but he has a message for the people involved: “Don’t ever think about doing something like that again.”
The landscape of the city center of the municipality has changed radically in recent years. After sitting empty for more than four decades as several revitalization proposals failed, a 16-acre estate near the bridge has been redeveloped into a mixed-use project with 1,225 apartments, restaurants and shops. The redevelopment revitalizes downtown and brings more pedestrian traffic, Mr. Sokolich said, “It’s the new hub of Fort Lee.”
Another redevelopment project near the bridge is the realization of 310 small rental apartments. The developer, UNLMTD Real Estate of Fort Lee, has demolished an old hotel and is rehabilitating a former office building for the project. “We want to draw a younger demographic to Fort Lee,” said Gabriella LoConte, an owner of the company. (Currently, nearly 25 percent of the population is 65 or older.)
What you will find
Fort Lee covers 2.5 square miles and has a population of approximately 40,000 residents – 42 percent of whom identify as Asian, 41 percent as non-Hispanic White, 12 percent as Hispanic, and 2.4 percent as Black.
The housing stock is dominated by condos and co-ops, and there are many high-rises—much more than is common in most Bergen County municipalities. According to information from the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, condos and co-ops made up more than 88 percent of Fort Lee home sales over the past two years.
Recently, developers have replaced some older single-family homes with side-by-side duplexes, Mr Chen said.
What you pay
At the beginning of January, there were 159 homes on the market in Fort Lee, according to the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, from a one-bedroom co-op for $105,000 to a six-bedroom house overlooking the Manhattan skyline for $3.5 million.
Sales of single-family homes and apartments fell in the 12 months ended Dec. 1, but cooperative sales rose. According to the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, 282 condos were sold during that period, down 16 percent from the same period a year earlier; 72 single-family homes sold, down 17 percent; and sold 344 cooperatives, an increase of 13 percent.
The median sale price for apartments was $430,000, up 2.6 percent over that 12-month period; for co-ops, it was $170,000, up 3 percent; and for single-family homes, it was $925,000, up 7.6 percent.
Fort Lee’s thriving Asian community reflects the dramatic expansion of New Jersey’s Asian population, which grew 44 percent from 2010 to 2020 to 1.05 million, according to census data.
The community’s roots date back to the 1970s, when Japanese business executives who worked in their companies’ offices in New York and New Jersey moved to Fort Lee and neighboring cities in search of a more suburban lifestyle close to Manhattan, the company said. Mr. Chen. As Asian markets and restaurants opened up, a wave of Korean immigrants followed from the 1980s. Many moved from Queens, attracted by the well-regarded schools.
“Koreans are always looking for the best education system,” said Peter J. Suh, 49, a Fort Lee councilman of Korean descent whose family moved to Fort Lee in the late 1970s.
More recently, Chinese immigrants have moved to Fort Lee. For all of these communities, the area’s Asian churches, markets and eateries — including dumplings, ramen and sushi along Main Street and in several strip malls — are a strong draw, Mr. Suh said: “It’s so easy to move in and feel comfortable.”
A luxury restaurant, Ventanas, opened in 2019 in the modern residential towers, part of the downtown redevelopment. For something a little more old school, there’s Hiram’s, a local institution that was featured by Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and journalist who died in 2018, on his DailyExpertNews show “Parts Unknown,” and is known for its fried hot dogs and chili cheese dogs
Overseen by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the 33-acre Fort Lee Historic Park features views of the Hudson River and reproductions of buildings used by Continental Army soldiers stationed there during the Revolutionary War. Ross Dock Picnic Area, which is on the Hudson River at the base of the Palisades, has a boat launch.
Fort Lee’s public schools serve approximately 4,000 students in four elementary schools, one middle school, and Fort Lee High School. In the 2020-21 school year, average high school SAT scores were 623 for reading and writing, compared to a state average of 557, and 656 for math, compared to a state average of 560.
Private school options in the area include Christ the Teacher Academy, a Catholic elementary school in Fort Lee; the Moriah School, a Jewish elementary school in Englewood, serving students from kindergarten through eighth grade; the Elisabeth Morrow School, an elementary school in Englewood; and Dwight-Englewood School, in Englewood, serving students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
From Fort Lee you can walk to Manhattan, crossing the pedestrian zone of the George Washington Bridge. If you’d rather save your feet, multiple buses and private jitneys converge at Bridge Plaza before heading to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in Washington Heights, where commuters can take the subway into Midtown Manhattan. The trip from Bridge Plaza to Washington Heights on the No. 182 New Jersey Transit bus takes about five minutes and the one-way fare is $1.85. (From elsewhere in Fort Lee, the fare is $3.50.)
New Jersey Transit’s #158 bus leaves Fort Lee and travels south along the Hudson River, through the Lincoln Tunnel, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. The ride takes about 40 minutes and the fare is $4.50 one way.
The ride to New York over the George Washington Bridge takes just a few minutes, although the journey is longer during rush hour. The toll is $16 cash, or $11.75 (off peak) and $13.75 (peak) for E-ZPass holders.
Fort Lee’s Revolutionary War history is in its name. In 1776, about 2,700 soldiers of the Continental Army camped at Fort Lee and delivered men and equipment to Fort Washington, across the Hudson.
In the early 1900s, Fort Lee became home to an exciting new industry, as movie companies – including Universal and Fox – began opening studios in the district. The Marx Brothers, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and members of the Barrymore family were among the motion picture pioneers who worked there. Barrymore Film Center, a new museum and theater in downtown Fort Lee, pays homage to the neighborhood’s place in film history.
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