Fort Lee, N.J.: ‘Like Being in the City Without Being in the City’
High on the New Jersey Palisades and home to the world’s busiest bridge, Fort Lee, N.J., sits on the fence between urban and suburban.
“It’s like being in the city without being in the city,” said Andrew Sloan, who paid $130,000 for a one-bedroom co-op in Fort Lee in 2018. 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, N.J., about 15 minutes northwest.
When Jacqueline and Michael Kates were downsizing from a four-bedroom house in Teaneck, N.J., they chose Fort Lee not just for its proximity to the city, but for its large selection of condos and co-ops. Since Mr. Kates, 80, a semiretired lawyer, and Ms. Kates, 77, a former mayor of Teaneck, bought a two-bedroom co-op there in 2014, for $410,000, they have adjusted to living in a denser environment.
“You don’t see the same sort of green space as in Teaneck,” Ms. Kates said. But the borough government has tried to create small parks that preserve a slice of nature, she added, and she loves the New York City views.
Empty nesters from nearby suburbs, like 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 borough also appeals to commuters, including many now returning to their New York City offices after working remotely during the pandemic, Mr. Chen said.
For all borough residents, the George Washington Bridge, which clocks about four million vehicle crossings every 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’s also brought us headaches; it’s brought us traffic.”
A park called Central Green was built between two glass apartment towers as part of Fort Lee’s downtown redevelopment.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
In 2013, Fort Lee’s traffic became the center of one of New Jersey’s more outlandish political scandals, when allies of then-Gov. Chris Christie retaliated against Mr. Sokolich for not endorsing the governor’s re-election bid by shutting down lanes leading to the bridge, causing four days of gridlock. Mr. Sokolich said he doesn’t hold a grudge, but he has a message for the people involved: “Never, ever think about doing something like that again.”
The borough’s downtown landscape has been dramatically reshaped in recent years. After sitting vacant for more than four decades as various revitalization proposals failed, a 16-acre property near the bridge has been redeveloped into a mixed-use project with 1,225 apartments, restaurants and stores. The redevelopment is energizing the downtown, bringing in more pedestrian traffic, Mr. Sokolich said: “It’s the new hub of Fort Lee.”
Another redevelopment project near the bridge is creating 310 small rental apartments. The developer, UNLMTD Real Estate of Fort Lee, tore down an old hotel and is rehabilitating a former office building for the project. “We want to attract a younger demographic to Fort Lee,” said Gabriella LoConte, an owner of the company. (Currently, almost 25 percent of the population is 65 or older.)
What You’ll Find
Fort Lee covers 2.5 square miles and has a population of about 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 — far more than is typical 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 home sales in Fort Lee in each of the past two years.
Recently, developers have replaced some older single-family homes with side-by-side duplexes, Mr. Chen said.
What You’ll Pay
As of early 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 listed for $105,000, to a six-bedroom house with Manhattan skyline views for $3.5 million.
Sales of single-family homes and condos fell in the 12 months ending Dec. 1, but co-op sales were up. According to the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, 282 condos sold during that period, down 16 percent from the same period a year earlier; 72 single-family homes sold, down 17 percent; and 344 co-ops sold, up 13 percent.
The median sale price for condos was $430,000, up 2.6 percent during 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 the Asian population across New Jersey, which grew 44 percent, to 1.05 million, from 2010 to 2020, according to census data.
The community traces its roots to the 1970s, when Japanese corporate executives working in their companies’ offices in New York and New Jersey moved to Fort Lee and neighboring towns in search of a more suburban lifestyle close to Manhattan, Mr. Chen said. As Asian markets and restaurants began to open, a wave of Korean immigrants followed, starting in the 1980s. Many moved from Queens, drawn by the well-regarded schools.
“Koreans are always looking for the best educational 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 been moving to Fort Lee. For all these communities, the area’s Asian churches, markets and eateries — including dumplings, ramen and sushi along Main Street, and in several strip shopping centers — are a powerful attraction, Mr. Suh said: “It’s so easy to move in and feel comfortable.”
An upscale restaurant, Ventanas, opened in 2019 at the Modern apartment towers, part of the downtown redevelopment. For something 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 CNN show “Parts Unknown,” and is known for its deep-fried hot dogs and chili-cheese dogs
The 33-acre Fort Lee Historic Park, overseen by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, offers Hudson River views and reproductions of buildings used by Continental Army soldiers stationed there during the Revolutionary War. Ross Dock Picnic Area, which sits on the Hudson River at the foot of the Palisades, includes a boat launch.
Fort Lee’s public schools serve about 4,000 students in four elementary schools, one middle school, and Fort Lee High School. In the 2020-21 school year, average SAT scores at the high school were 623 in reading and writing, compared with a state average of 557, and 656 in math, compared with 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 in prekindergarten through eighth grade; the Elisabeth Morrow School, an elementary school in Englewood; and Dwight-Englewood School, in Englewood, serving students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.
From Fort Lee, you can walk to Manhattan, on the pedestrian lane of the George Washington Bridge. If you’d rather spare 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 catch the subway to Midtown Manhattan. The trip from Bridge Plaza to Washington Heights on New Jersey Transit bus No. 182 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 bus No. 158 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.
Driving to New York across the George Washington Bridge takes just a few minutes, although the trip 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 right there in its name. In 1776, about 2,700 Continental Army soldiers camped in Fort Lee, supplying men and equipment to Fort Washington, across the Hudson.
In the early part of the 20th century, Fort Lee became the home of an exciting new industry, as film companies — including Universal and Fox — began opening studios in the borough. The Marx Brothers, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and members of the Barrymore family were among the movie pioneers who worked there. Barrymore Film Center, a new museum and theater in downtown Fort Lee, pays tribute to the borough’s place in film history.
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