Monday, November 19, 2007

A New Jersey Suburban Enclave that Doesn't Feel Like Sprawl

Have you ever wanted to know more about suburban New Jersey? The New York Times celebrates a small town there called Hopewell Borough. The commute to New York City looks a little bit too long for my taste. You couldn't walk to Columbia or NYU from there.

In these real estate articles, The Times does do a pretty good job sketching how "other people live". It would interest me how the morning Manhattan New York Times readers respond to this information. Are they tempted to cash out and move to this bucolic life? Or does Hopewell Borough sound like Mars to them?


November 18, 2007
Living In Hopewell Borough, N.J.
It’s in New Jersey, but It Screams Vermont

By JILL P. CAPUZZO

MAYBE the people who live in Hopewell Borough have Jersey fatigue. Or maybe they just yearn for a simpler place and time, before traffic jams and planned communities. Whatever the reason, they are quick to describe this small village in central New Jersey as the most un-Jersey-like town in the state.

“It’s not typical New Jersey, which is what we really like about it,” said Beth Judge, who grew up in East Brunswick and moved here with her husband, Will Mooney, 12 years ago to raise a family and open a restaurant.

Despite being surrounded by wealthy enclaves like Princeton, Pennington and Lawrenceville, Hopewell Borough has managed to hold on to more reasonable prices. The quaintness of its downtown draws visitors like Pete Taft, who lives in neighboring East Amwell but does much shopping and dining out in Hopewell Borough. He calls it “the most Vermont-like town in New Jersey.”

A stroll through the area backs up Mr. Taft’s assertion. First, there is the painted brick library, housed in a century-old former bank building. A few doors down is the Baptist Church, with its tall white steeple and bells that chime hourly from early morning to late evening (they used to ring through the night, until residents complained of chime-induced insomnia). Across the street is the Revolutionary War-era graveyard, and around the corner is the neighborhood playhouse, which has just ended a run of — what else? — “The Fantasticks.”

Situated at the base of the Sourland Mountains, Hopewell is not without its wealthy benefactors. Two heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, who own swaths of land on either side of Hopewell for their private estates, have helped the borough buy much of the remaining adjacent land for open space. Also, the borough recently raised $3 million toward the acquisition of a 340-acre tract that once housed St. Michael’s Orphanage.

With its concentrated residential and commercial districts, surrounded by a greenbelt of preserved land, Hopewell Borough became the first municipality in New Jersey to earn the “Village Center” designation under the state’s revised master plan in 1993.

“I tell my kids they’re going to be able to come back here in 50 years and the trees may be bigger, but it’s going to basically look the same,” said Ray Disch, the owner of Disch Real Estate in Hopewell Borough. He lived in town for 12 years before moving a few miles away, to a farm in the greenbelt area.

What You’ll Find

The several blocks contiguous to Hopewell’s downtown are mostly filled with historic homes, some modest, some less so. Most are included in the town’s designated historic district, which encompasses about two-thirds of this mile-square borough. The designation means that homeowners hoping to make changes to their houses’ exteriors must seek approval from the borough’s historic preservation committee.

One of the oldest houses in town is the 1757 brick-and-stone farmhouse that was once home to the borough’s most famous son, John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (He is buried in the graveyard on West Broad Street.) But it is more typical to see a two- or three-story colonial or Victorian, dating to the late 1800s or early 1900s. Northeast of Broad Street is a small section of newer housing, mostly single-family homes built in the last 20 years.

Hopewell Borough, which is in the northeast corner of Hopewell Township, has colleges on all sides: Princeton, the College of New Jersey and Rider University. Many professionals in town are connected to these institutions, each about seven miles away.

Similarly, the nearby offices of companies like Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch and Bristol-Myers Squibb employ some of the newer residents, who have discovered this neighborly, more affordable town. But whatever their work situation, a sizable portion of the town’s 2,035 residents are second- and third-generation Hopewellians.

Betty Gantz has lived all of her 94 years in Hopewell Borough, in the house her uncle bought in 1896. Today, she shares the large multicolored Victorian on Blackwell Avenue with her son and his family.

“Like any other small town,” Mrs. Gantz said, “there are people who are nice and people who are nasty, but generally speaking, people are so very helpful here.”

Sandy Brown, a real estate agent who has lived here for 21 years, describes Hopewell as the kind of place where your neighbors look out for your kids. “That’s a huge weight off your shoulders, knowing there’s a community to take care of you,” she said.

What You’ll Pay

With just over 800 homes in the entire borough, typically there may be only a dozen houses on the market at a time. Prices have come down significantly in recent months, according to Ms. Brown of Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate in Pennington, who said she was having her best fall ever — “now that we have a lot of realistic sellers coming to terms with the market.”

At the high end are a few large Victorian homes, with three stories and four or five bedrooms, listed in the high $500,000s or low $600,000s. One of these, an 1860 five-bedroom, three-bath home on East Broad Street, is said to be the first professionally built house in Hopewell Borough. It is listed at $575,000.

At the opposite end of Broad Street is an 80-year-old expanded bungalow that was one of the original Sears model houses. Sitting on three-quarters of an acre, with a backyard that faces a 70-acre sheep farm, the house is listed at $459,000.

At the low end of the market is an 80-year-old two bedroom, one-bath bungalow on Hamilton Street, with an updated eat-in kitchen, listed at $347,000.

In the newer section, two of the homes in Hopewell Woods, an 18-year-old development on Elm Street, have sold in recent months in the high $400,000s, brokers say. A 20-year-old four-bedroom, two-bath expanded Cape on Hamilton Avenue is currently listed at $539,000.

Multifamily housing is limited, but the newer part of the borough has some duplexes and town houses that sell in the mid-$200,000s when they come on the market, according to Mr. Disch.

What to Do

What started as a destination for antique hunters has become a bustling commercial district that serves not only Hopewell Borough but also the more rural areas surrounding the town. The Brothers Moon, the restaurant opened in 2001 by Ms. Judge and Mr. Mooney, helped redefine the downtown, according to Mr. Taft and others. Since then, several restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops have opened.

At Christmastime, the borough’s five churches join forces in creating a nativity scene on the grounds of the Calvary Baptist Church on West Broad Street, on the site of the borough’s original Baptist Meeting House. The Hopewell Museum on East Broad Street has a holiday tea and open house in December. At other times of the year, the museum’s focus is village life in America from colonial times to the present.

The open space that surrounds the borough includes walking trails, and picnic and playground areas. In Hopewell Park at the end of South Greenwood Avenue, a fanciful gazebo — largely paid for from the Johnson fortune — is the site of summer concerts and parties.

The Schools

Borough schools are part of the Hopewell Valley Regional District. Kindergarten through Grade 5 are taught at Hopewell Elementary School, which also has students from Hopewell Township; enrollment is 520.

Those in Grades 6 through 8 attend Timberlane Middle School, and older students go to Hopewell Valley Central High School. Both schools are in Pennington Borough. Average SAT scores in 2006 at the high school, which has an enrollment of 1,150, were 556 on the verbal, 591 on the math and 557 on the reading section. Those compared favorably with state averages of 494, 591 and 493, respectively.

Being in the heart of an academically rich area, Hopewell Borough children also have many private schools nearby from which to choose, including Princeton Day School, the Hun School, the Peddie School, Lawrenceville School, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart and the Pennington School.

The Commute

The closest train station offering service to New York City is in Princeton Borough, seven miles away. From there, New Jersey Transit trains travel regularly to Pennsylvania Station, in about an hour and 20 minutes. The drive to Midtown is about 55 miles, and takes 75 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic.

The History

Founded in the early 1700s by a group of Baptist farmers, the area was first called Hopewell Meeting House, then Columbia and, later, Hopewell. In 1756, the country’s first Baptist secondary school, Hopewell Baptist Academy, was started here. Its graduates went on to found what became Brown University in Rhode Island.

With the arrival of rail service in 1874, Hopewell saw a burst in industrial development, with a lumberyard, a creamery, canneries and a shirt factory.

Today, several of those buildings, along Railroad Place, house antique sellers and artisans. The rail line now carries freight only, while the restored railroad station is used for community events.

Hopewell is also known for its proximity to the site of a notorious 20th-century crime: the 1932 kidnapping of the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s baby from his home in nearby East Amwell. Deep in the woods a few miles outside the borough, the Lindbergh Mansion, now a home for troubled youth, is still a curiosity for sightseers.

2 comments :

LJR said...

Hi -- I don't know you at all and got here through Google, but I grew up in that town in the 80s and 90s -- it was a great, walkable, bikable place to be a kid. Most people that I knew who didn't have businesses locally seemed to work in the Princeton-area corporate parks (ETS, Squibb, etc) where there weren't really public transportation opportunities in the area -- but people who worked in the City generally took the train. They periodically look into reinstituting a NJTransit line that would stop at the old train station, but it's always been rejected as financially unrealistic. Bus service (to Trenton, I think) stopped a long time ago for lack of ridership.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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