Picturing a New Future for Fort Lee The Best of Both Worlds

Picturing a New Future for Fort Lee

Fort Lee, a quaint town of two-and-a-half square miles perched on the Palisades above the mighty Hudson River, is often overlooked. Millions of people have passed through Fort Lee—indeed, anyone who has ever crossed the George Washington Bridge has breached the town's borders—but of those, only a fraction have stopped to smell the proverbial roses.

But that's is changing. This rocky town, known primarily for the mammoth bridge that dominates the landscape, is forcing people to take a longer look, and being recognized at last for its many charms.

Fort Lee History

Originally a vast, secluded redoubt for the colonial Bourdette family, Fort Lee assumed its military importance in 1776, one of the more tumultuous years of the Revolutionary War. In that year, General George Washington had Fort Lee—and Fort Washington, its twin across the river—built to bolster the colonial defense of the Hudson.

Unfortunately, his plan was unsuccessful. Despite the best efforts of Washington (and his junior general, Charles Lee, for whom the town is named) the British launched a massive naval assault and seized New York. The fort was abandoned soon after it was constructed.

The town drifted into pleasant obscurity for more than a century, until the nascent film industry began using its rocky terrain as sets. Some of the biggest film stars of the silent-film era, including John Barrymore (who lived in the town), Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Theda Bara, and the original America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford lived and/or worked in Fort Lee. The term cliffhanger, denoting a suspenseful first-act ending of a two-part serial, actually derives from the cliffs of Fort Lee, where many of those early serials were shot.

It was in 1931, however, that the opening of the George Washington Bridge—still the world's only fourteen-lane suspension bridge—literally put Fort Lee on the map. What was once real estate Siberia became a major traffic hub, and the face of the town was forever changed.

Horizon House

Part of that change was the influx of people and the development of new residential properties. One of the crown jewels of Fort Lee multi-family real estate is Horizon House, a six-building deluxe cooperative apartment complex situated on 32 rolling acres overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Another will be the billion-dollar Centuria development, a mixed-use complex on the former Helmsley property at foot of the bridge, which is being hailed as the biggest thing to hit Fort Lee since the great span itself.

Fort Lee has the majority of cooperative housing in the state, accounting for some 6,500 units. One of the largest and most venerable is Horizon House, with 1,266 units spread out campus-like a mile south of the bridge.

"Horizon has the premier location," says realtor Nelson Chen, president of The Chen Agency, a realty company doing brisk business in Fort Lee. Chen, who lived there for 10 years himself, adds that the property "sits directly on the edge of the cliff, and the views are tremendous."

"It's one of a kind," echoes Nora Kennington, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker, who has lived there for six years. "The views are of the Hudson River or Manhattan to the east, the bridge to the north, or the mountains and Hackensack River to the west. There's even a landscaping committee to make sure that residents on the lower floors have a view of the river through the trees."

Alexander von Summer, a prominent real estate developer, was the prime mover behind the development of Horizon House, which began in 1961. Purchasing and then cobbling together several parcels of land on the Palisades overlooking the Hudson, he went to work realizing his vision, enlisting the Tishman Construction Company to construct and manage the project. The development's original four 14-story oblongs were completed within three years and boasted a wide array of floor plans. In 1968, the two additional 28-story towers were finished.

"The towers are of Bauhaus design," Kennington adds. "Very sophisticated, very elegant."

Because of the aforementioned array of floor plans, prices for Horizon House apartments run the gamut. A one-bedroom can be had for as little as $175,000, while a deluxe penthouse may run into the seven figures. In general, one-bedrooms cost between $175,000 and $350,000, and two-bedrooms between $350,000 and $500,000.

Because of the wide price range, Horizon's population reflects Fort Lee's own diversity.

"Everybody lives there," Chen says. "Young singles, families…it's cross-dimensional."

Unlike similar complexes in the outer boroughs of New York City, Chen says that the maintenance costs for Horizon House residents—which include utilities—are reasonable, comparable with or even less than what other co-ops in the area pay.

Another factor that separates Horizon House from similarly large cooperative complexes is the development's sense of community. The self-contained, village-like area features two swimming pools, four outdoor playgrounds ("It's very kid-friendly," Chen says), tennis, basketball and handball courts, and winding trails through green acres that create a collegial ambiance.

"The grounds are gorgeously landscaped—almost to a resort level," Kennington says, and there's also a community room, a game room, an indoor children's' playroom, and a library.

Finally, the lion's share of the units are lived in by their owners, which helps foster the community feel.

"It's the best of both worlds," Kennington says—words that are often used to describe Fort Lee itself. "You get the casual hellos, but you also get privacy."

Fort Lee Today

"This is the United Nations," says Chen. "Every person in the world lives here, so everyone feels at home—no matter where you're from, no matter what language you speak, no one blinks an eye."

Indeed, the population of 36,067 does comprise a wide swath of humanity. Although plenty of the original Italian, Dutch, German and Irish population still calls Fort Lee home, they have been joined by many other nationalities.

"I go jogging in Constitution Park, and I see kids playing soccer, and there are kids from every single ethnic group that exists," says Kimberly Mako, an event planner who has lived in Fort Lee for two years.

"In the last 10 years, the Korean population has mushroomed," Kennington explains, adding that they now account for about 33 percent of the population. "There's also a new Russian population, which is about 10 percent—and the rest is a mixed bag."

Similarly, the median income of $46,395 sits astride a wide financial spectrum; there were residents of Fort Lee from every economic strata. This diversity is a boon to his industry, Chen says.

"The unique balance between economics and people's national origins makes Fort Lee a very secure market, in terms of real estate," Chen explains.

The biggest selling point, of course, is the combination of proximity and ease of travel to Manhattan.

"We call ourselves the Sixth Borough," Chen says. "We're a Manhattan offshoot at much, much lower prices, but our access is incredible. Also, because we're looking at Manhattan, we have better views."

Buses and shuttles zoom from Bridge Plaza to the bus depot at 179th Street in Manhattan, where the A train awaits. "The commute to Midtown is great," Mako says. "Forty-five minutes, door-to-door."

The only problem with relying on the buses is that they shut down earlier than, say, the open-all-night PATH system in Hoboken and Jersey City.

"It's tough at night," Mako says. "More often than not, you have to cab. And cabs across the bridge are expensive."

Compounding this problem is the fact that while Fort Lee has its own core of restaurants, some residents feel that the town's nightlife is not as vibrant as they'd like.

"It's not Hoboken in terms of bars and clubs," Chen says, alluding to Fort Lee's mile-square neighbor to the south, which boasts watering holes in abundance (or over-abundance, some might say). "It's much, much quieter."

For others however, that quietude is itself a selling point.

As Mako puts it, explaining why she moved to Fort Lee from Manhattan: "It's a little bit more chill."

"I grew up in Manhattan, I lived in Manhattan my whole life; I love Fort Lee," Kennington says.

The Future of Fort Lee

"Fort Lee can only increase in value because of the value of the location," Chen says. "It's the access to Manhattan, and the relatively reasonable tax rate compared to other towns in the area."

This prime selling point, combined with what Chen calls a "very good" public school system, are all elements that suggest continued growth.

As lovely a residence as the complex is, Horizon House does not solve Fort Lee's lone real estate drawback—a drawback symbolized by the highway and bridge that traverse its borders. The community struggles against the perception that it's a place to live in order to get somewhere else—that Fort Lee is not and has never been a destination unto itself.

Part of the problem is a conspicuous construction void on the Helmsley property—a depressed-looking wasteland that everyone interviewed for this article called "an eyesore." The 16-acre tract has sat untouched for nearly three decades—the main casualty of Helmsley's scrapped plans to create what he called a "mini-city" of commercial and residential buildings on the site.

"That used to be wall-to-wall stores and homes," says Mike Fieler, who has lived in Fort Lee since 1951 and served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce. First, one development group bought the property, tore everything down to build a shopping plaza, got caught bribing the mayor, and went bankrupt. Then Helmsley stepped in—in the 1980's, but, still, the land has gone unused.

That, like many of the other issues and perceptions that have held Fort Lee back, may be changing as well. Sometime in the next five to 10 years—with local government officials lobbying strongly in favor of the earlier timeframe—the new Centuria complex will open its doors, restoring life to the wasteland.

Nestled at the foot of the bridge, on property extricated from Helmsley after years of legal wrangling, the Centuria will feature 842 residential units, 90,000 square feet of office space, 126,000 square feet of retail space, a 19-story, four-star hotel, and a 65,000-square-foot convention center. Centuria will be, at last, a place to go on Fort Lee. Much of Fort Lee's future as an "it" community is invested in developers' plans for the area.

The majority of locals seem fired up about the possibilities.

"Everything is there," Chen says. "[The Centuria project] will create a new hub at the bridge, and it will bolster value. Fort Lee doesn't have a great downtown. This will create one."

"I'm excited about it," says Mako. "If more people come here, it'll make things easier for us. We tend to get overlooked, because we're not one of the urban centers like Hoboken or Jersey City. This could change that."

"I'm excited that that eyesore will be developed after 34 years of nothing," says Fieler, who owned one of the homes and one of the businesses that were torn down years ago. "The underlying concern is traffic, of course. But this could bring Fort Lee back again."

"The old timers say, 'Oh my God, the traffic,'" jokes Kennington - traffic being, with the bridge and the highways, a major headache for residents already. "But the mayor and the city council and Centuria [developers] say they have a long-term traffic plan, to widen lanes, open up streets, and so forth."

"If you go back to the turn of the century, through the 1950s, before the co-ops and condos were built," says Kennington, "that was Fort Lee - that was the downtown. So I'm excited that it will be revitalized, in the same way hopefully that Hoboken and parts of Jersey City were revitalized. This will bring Fort Lee into the 21st century."

The success of Centuria, and the subsequent jump in nearby property values, seems almost preordained. If mixed-use is the wave of future, as many urban planners claim, Fort Lee seems poised to make the leap. How high will it rise? That remains to be seen, and is therefore, in local parlance, a cliffhanger.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.