Berkeley Heights, NJ
Suburbia, but Not the Cookie-Cutter Kind
Berkeley Heights is a small community located in Union County, NJ with a population of 12,913. Nestled in the Watchung Mountains, Berkeley Heights is a community of comfortable homes, quiet tree lined streets, which provides the ideal setting for raising a family and enjoying life. Berkeley Heights boasts an excellent school system consisting of 4 elementary schools, 1 middle school and 1 High School. Residents enjoy spacious parks and outstanding recreational programs for all ages.
In this time of increasing development, the Township Council is diligently working to maintain the beauty and character of our community.
Adrienne Natrillo and her husband, Javier Gomez, moved to Berkeley Heights, N.J., from Connecticut four years ago because the town was 15 miles from her office in East Hanover and had houses they thought were much better buys than those in nearby communities.
Now Ms. Natrillo, a scientist, and Mr. Gomez, who is in the insurance business, are rediscovering Berkeley Heights, an architecturally eclectic town of 13,000 in western Union County, as they pilot their 4-month-old son’s stroller down its rolling, shady streets.
“Unless something happens with our jobs,” she said, “I feel like we’re going to be here 30 years.”
Real estate brokers say BerkeleyHeights has been a relatively easy place to sell homes, even in a recession, because it is less than 30 miles from Manhattan, with easy accessibility to a commuter train line and Interstate 78, in the southern part of town.
But Ms. Natrillo and Mr. Gomez, who bought a four-bedroom 1980s colonial for $700,000, enjoy the place for what is right there: the great outdoors, for one, and residents who say hello.
Berkeley Heights was a sleepy, rural community until the American Telephone and Telegraph Company built a research facility in 1941 in its southeastern corner. Bell Laboratories, which later became Lucent Technologies, straddled BerkeleyHeights and New Providence and brought thousands of workers to western UnionCounty.
Seventy years later, however, the general effect remains uncluttered, almost rural — much more like a town much farther from New York City, like Sparta, the previous hometown of Joseph Bruno, the mayor. “We have a lot of folks here who want to live in the country but also want to live close to work,” he said.
“It’s kept its small-town charm as long as I’ve been here,” said Mr. Bruno, who has lived in three houses in BerkeleyHeights since moving to the township in 1992.
Mr. Bruno, a store manager for J. C. Penney not far away in Wayne, took on the part-time job of mayor this year. As in other places, the township has had to run on a shoestring budget recently, he said, but not to the point that services have been cut.
Although BerkeleyHeights is within minutes of Interstate 78, the lifestyle is quiet, and residents tend to stay put. Mr. Bruno, who bought a four-bedroom house seven years ago for $640,000, describes the town as “multigenerational” and cited two neighbors who are putting additions onto their houses to avoid having to move. Berkeley Heights home sales are plentiful.
Kenneth B. Baris, the president and broker for Jordan Baris Realtors, whose main office is in West Orange, says he has had a number of clients choosing to stay in town when they trade up to larger houses, “which is a very positive statement.”
The quality of the local schools is a selling point, as are the tax rates, which tend to be lower than in similar bedroom communities in nearby EssexCounty. The town, nestled in the WatchungMountains, feels more spread out, less densely populated.
Yimin Tang and his wife, Bei Jiang, are engineers. They just paid $490,000 for a four-bedroom 1963 bilevel. He said they had looked nearby in New Providence, Mountainside and WarrenTownship, but felt BerkeleyHeights offered the best deal. “This is big enough for us,” he said. “And there’s some potential for the future.”
WHAT YOU’LL FIND
The township, area 6.3 square miles, is bordered by the PassaicRiver to the north and I-78 to the south. It sticks out of UnionCounty like a hitchhiker’s thumb, with MorrisCounty to the north and SomersetCounty to the west and south. Two thoroughfares cut east to west: Mountain Avenue and Springfield Avenue, the commercial strip.
To the east on Springfield, near New Providence, is a sprawling shopping center. To the west, Springfield looks a lot more like Main Street U.S.A., with American flags fluttering above a block that includes a bagel store, a barber shop (with a barber pole) and a hardware store.
“BerkeleyHeights is really a small town at heart,” said Mary Ann Walsh, a RE/MAX agent who moved here with her husband 13 years ago from Maplewood to raise their children. “We have every amenity as any other place, but when I got here, I felt very welcome. It’s a very friendly town. We feel like we got the best of both worlds.”
The BerkeleyHeights train station — near the intersection of Springfield and Plainfield Avenue, the main north-south road — is at the center of town. Several restaurants, a park and a variety of businesses are within walking distance of the station, including a garage, a dry cleaner and a plant nursery. Signs for yard sales are stapled to utility poles.
The landscape to the south, moving along Plainfield away from the river, is hilly and verdant. Tall hardwoods drape a variety of houses that run the gamut from older frame structures, to 1960s-era split-levels, to recently built brick colonials in the Cinnamon Ridge section. Most houses have front yards large enough to play catch.
“It’s not like other towns,” Ms. Natrillo said, explaining that even with subdivisions, the styles vary enough that “as you go down the street, you pass all different types of houses.”
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
A recent look at the Garden State Mutiple Listing Service showed 80 residential properties for sale, ranging from a two-bedroom condominium, for $259,000, to a five-bedroom custom-built colonial for $1.35 million. A three-bedroom ranch built in 1956 is listed for $500,000, with an annual tax bill of $8,000.
Robert Edgar, the township’s tax assessor, said 135 houses sold in BerkeleyHeights from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, for an average of $558,000. He said 58 houses sold from July 1, 2010, to March 31 of this year, with an average sale price of $577,000.
According to Trulia.com, the median sale price in BerkeleyTownship between November and January was $547,950, or 4.8 percent higher than the median price in the corresponding period one year earlier.
Mr. Baris says there are sometimes bidding wars for houses within the zone for the ThomasE.HughesElementary School. Average sales prices in that section of the school district over the past year are $713,000, with 15 percent of houses selling in 30 days.
According to Mr. Baris’s data, 62 percent of houses listed from $600,000 to $699,000 sold in the past year, with an average of 35 days to sale. As he put it, “What we’re finding is that this is a real sweet spot for the town, pricewise.”
New Jersey Transit has two direct trains to New York Pennsylvania Station each weekday morning on the Morris and Essex line, and two direct trains each weekday evening for the return trip. Travel time is 50 to 56 minutes, and a monthly pass costs $308.
There are also eight morning trains that require a transfer at Summit or Newark Broad Street to get to Penn Station. Parking at the train station for residents is $285 a year. There is a three-year waiting list for spots, but Mr. Bruno says the township is planning to expand the lots.
Another option is Lakeland Bus Lines, which offers service to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Five buses make the trip, scheduled for 55 minutes to one hour, each weekday morning, making three stops along the way. A 10-trip ticket is $88.80.
WHAT TO DO
BerkeleyHeights is surrounded by open space. At the northern edge of the township, only a block from Springfield Avenue, is the Passaic River County Park, part of which is in the UnionCounty parks system. To the south is Watchung Reservation, UnionCounty’s largest park, at 1,945 acres. People go there to hike, fish, canoe, ride horses and picnic.
Among summer programs offered by the township’s recreation department: a playground camp for students in Grades 1 through 7; concerts and movies; lessons and camps in tennis, table tennis and gymnastics; and several adult fitness programs. Family membership at the Berkeley Heights Community Pool is $425 a year for residents.
The system has an early-childhood center for prekindergarten through first grade, three elementary schools for Grades 2 through 5, a middle school and Governor Livingston High School. Average class size at Hughes Elementary is 18.6 students, about the state average.
The high school has about 1,000 students in Grades 9 through 12. SAT averages last year were 573 in math, 547 in reading and 552 in writing, versus 520, 496 and 499 statewide. The graduation rate for the class of 2010 was 100 percent, versus 94.7 percent statewide.
In 1845, David Felt built a mill, a general store-cum-church and about half a dozen other buildings on Watchung Reservation land bought from the descendants of Peter Willcox, the first European settler. The community, called Feltville, survived for about 15 years, and in 1882 was used as a summer resort, GlensidePark. The Union County Park Commission bought the land in the 1920s, and some of the Feltville buildings still stand, off Glenside Avenue.