Walkable Suburbs: Myth or Reality?

Wednesday, Jun 15, 2011 10:00am  |  COMMENTS (31)

Homebuyers who list “walkability” as a top priority in their home search often trot out the usual reasons – it shaves minutes off their commute, they spend less on car-related expenses, resale value is higher, etc.  But for some buyers, especially those who are moving from New York City or other urban areas, the real reasons might be more psychological.

“I grew up in the city and only got my driver’s license a few years ago,” said Pam Berman, “so when we decided to move to the suburbs it was critical for me to not be completely and utterly reliant on my husband.” 

Berman is a somewhat reluctant suburban transplant.  After a house hunt that spanned the tri-state area, she and her husband recently purchased a home in Glen Ridge within walking distance of the train station, shops, restaurants and other amenities.

“I can walk to two different train stations, to pick up my dry cleaning, go to yoga and get my nails done,” she said.

Berman is typical of a cohort of buyers throughout Baristaville who say the walkability factor is non-negotiable.  “There is a general desire among all buyer demographics to live in a real community with a walkable downtown,” said Lina Panza, “and most of my buyers are looking for that type of home.”  

Panza, who sells homes in the South Orange/Maplewood and Montclair/Glen Ridge/Bloomfield areas, has made walkability a key part of her marketing.  She blogs about it on Walkable Suburbs.    

“Buyers want to be able to walk to things and not rely on cars 100% of the time,” said Panza, who lives in Montclair.  She noted that in particular people who are moving from cities or from abroad fear losing that key aspect of their former life.

“I grew up in Europe where you just walk places and walk home with groceries,” said Ondine Landa Abramson, who lives in South Orange with her husband and young daughter.  “It was very important to us that we could walk everywhere in town.”

Abramson pointed out that her 90-year-old neighbor still walks to and from downtown every day.  “With groceries,” she said.

South Orange, like Bloomfield and Montclair, is a designated NJ Transit “Transit Village”, which recognizes municipalities that are committed to revitalizing and redeveloping the area around their train station.

“South Orange is the perfect case-study for model walkable downtowns, in both its challenges and advantages,” said Village President Alex Torpey, who made public transportation a key issue in his recent campaign.

“Our downtown is in remarkable condition compared to 15 or 20 years ago, but there is still a lot more potential,” he said.  Torpey noted several steps the town could take to encourage more foot traffic, including building more downtown housing, making streets and walkways more pedestrian-safe and friendly, and improving public spaces.

“When we moved to South Orange in 2005, I don’t think we realized how essential its walkability would prove to be,” said Matt Glass.  He and his wife, who are Greenwich Village transplants, work in downtown, have a non-driving babysitter and only one car. 

“Our world often revolves around what is walkable.  Our office, the train, school and shopping are all within a ten-minute walk from our house.” 

When they moved to South Orange from the Upper West Side eight years ago, Allison Busch-Vogel and husband Jon had a highly specific must-have on their list: a place where they could go for a run and end up with a good cup of coffee. 

“Our favorite days are those where we never get in the car and we have gone running, hiked in the reservation, had lunch at a diner, gone to the pool and then walked to dinner and listened to local music,” she said.

Panza noted two other demographics looking for walkability, including aging baby boomers who are looking ahead to the time when they will no longer drive. 

“I just sold a condo off Church Street (in Montclair) to a couple in their 70s in that situation,” said Panza.

Another group is families with adolescent and teenaged children.  “The bane of suburban existence has long been the chore of shuttling kids all over town to sports, activities and social engagements, but living in a walkable suburb takes the pressure off,” said Panza.

Panza’s 10-year-old daughter walks to the Watchung Plaza Village in Montclair to buy bubble gum from the candy store and Judy Blume books from Watchung Booksellers.  Her 14- year-old sons ride their bikes to the YMCA for swimming practice and walk to school.

“There’s no need to drive them to the 7-11 so they can hang out in the back near the dumpsters with their friends,” said Panza.  “Plus, it gives them a sense of independence.”

Realtor Vanessa Pollock, with ReMax in Short Hills, said, “Many of my buyers moving from the city want to feel like they’re still connected to their communities, and being able to walk places is a part of that.”  She recently negotiated on a South Orange home whose buyers said walkability was their “top priority.”

However, Pollock has noticed that many of those same buyers later discover that walkability wasn’t quite as essential as they originally thought.  “As time goes on they end up relying on the jitney, or they just drive to most places anyway.” 

I think sometimes the insistence on walkability is more of an emotional thing,” she said.

South Orange photo by Leif Knutsen.

31 Comments

  1. POSTED BY Spiro T. Quayle  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I agree, there is definitely an emotional (perhaps sentimental) aspect to suburban walkability to shops, parks, and transit — for ex NYers like me.
    Although I landed in Montclair through happenstance, I remain glad the happenstance didn’t land me in, for example, Livingston or North Caldwell.

  2. POSTED BY Mrs Martta  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Ditto. I lived in downtown Montclair from 1981 through 2003, when I met the man who would become my husband. That was one of the non-negotiable dealbreakers when we bought our home, that I could walk to places. True, I can no longer walk out my front door and be in the middle of everything but it’s only a mile or so away, not a big deal to me.

  3. POSTED BY Right of Center  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    It’s (as many things are in Baristaville) more about how we regard ourselves than actual copious walking. Rarely do you see someone taking a long walk home with their dry cleaning slung over their shoulder. How many of these do you see at Kings or A&P? (I don’t think I ever have…)

    What a self-regarding Montclairon means when they say “walkability” is a nice stroll down Church St. between where they parked the car and Raymond’s.

    Also when a realtor calls a house “walkable” they mean it’s on a really busy street.

  4. POSTED BY oliveoyle  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    I’ve been in GR for over 25 years. I chose my house because I could walk to Bloomfield Center. Liptons Dept Store, Classic Footwear, Red Apple Toy Store, Kresges & most wonderful of all…The lunch counter at Woolworths. I still walk to the Center, but now for the exercise. My few purchases are usually from Annie Sez. Now I drive to Upper Montclair to get that “Suburban Shopping” experience.

  5. POSTED BY walleroo  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    When we were looking for our current house 10 years ago, walkability and a quiet block were paramount. They still are. We walk to the dry cleaners, to the restaurants, to the parks, to the movies. Our house is a kids’ hangout because they can walk so easily to get pizza or burgers or catch a movie or hang out in the park and score jack. The trouble often is that what seems walkable in theory is turns out to be too far in practice. There aren’t that many houses in Montclair that are really close to things. The distances tend to be good for biking but not so much for walking. Unless you happen to be Rennaissance Man.

  6. POSTED BY Spiro T. Quayle  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    ROC, the folks in my area, Watchung Plaza, do plenty of walking with their drycleaning, etc, usually within a 2 block radius from the Plaza to their homes. ( Often with their dogs.)

    And, cynicism aside, walkable houses are not always on busy streets. I’d use the homes around Watchung Plaza as an example again – pick most any street you like- Fairfield, Waterbury, much of Erwin Park – all quiet streets, all easily walkable to shops and transit.

    Same holds true for many of the streets around Valley and Belleville- and also the area around Grove Street Pharmacy.

  7. POSTED BY herbeverschmel  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    South Orange walkable? If your at Bunny’s and need to get to your home on Wyoming it may not be so walkable.

  8. POSTED BY Spiro T. Quayle  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    Belleville should have been spelled “Bellevue”.

  9. POSTED BY deadeye  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    It takes me 25 minutes, at a minimum, to walk from my house to town/train station. I will do it in a pinch, but on a daily basis it’s not workable. What I don’t understand is why, given all of this discussion about walkability and the vocal arguments about how bike friendly the town is, parents shuttle their children, who are perfectly capable of hopping on a bike, virtually everywhere. As kids we walked/rode almost two miles to school, rain or shine. Today everyone complains about childhood weight problems, yet parents don’t hesitate to drive junior around the corner for a play date or sports practice. Go figure.

  10. POSTED BY DagT  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    After leaving Brooklyn it took me more than a year to get my own car. I walked wherever I could. Now I drive. And I think most people do. Which is why parking is so difficult when I go to Raymond’s. Next time you’re on Church St. look for strollers or in my day perambulator. Not many.

  11. POSTED BY deadeye  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    Spiro, I would sat that the area around Watchung Plaza is among the most walkable in town, notwithstanding the traffic.

  12. POSTED BY yougottalovehim  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Montclair is totally a walkable town. If you want to walk, and live close enough to a main square. I walk back and forth to train station 2x a day, and on any given weekend day can walk to four breakfast places, a post office, my dry cleaners, a good deli, my bank, a wonderful park, a CVS, a few places for coffee, a decent chinese take out place, a liquor store (vital), a movie (if I’m feeling a little ambitious), etc. I am thrilled not to move my car on a Saturday. The idea of driving to Watching Plaza or the Valley Road shopping area and looking for a parking spot for 20 minutes just pushes me over the edge. If I were a merchant in this town I’d be outraged. And Bloomfield is probably worse. (Does the parking lot behind the Town Pub in Bloomfield really need to give half of their ‘effin spots to resident permits?)

  13. POSTED BY Mrs Martta  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    From reading these comments I guess “walkability” is a relative term. I don’t think twice about walking a mile or two to get to a destination, especially on a nice day. If you are in good health, you live in a safe place, and don’t have lots of things to carry, what’s the big deal? Driving and parking can be a real PITA sometimes and I would much rather walk if I can.

    The day might come when you will miss being ambulatory so get out there and seize the sidewalks!

  14. POSTED BY Conan  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    Walkability is a paramount concern to me: From our chateau in Brookdale it is a short walk to get (decent) pizza, (great) sushi, any foodstuff known to man (including Spaten Beer) at Krauzer’s, my hair cut, my dry cleaning, the bus to Gotham, and groceries at ShopRite. It is a slightly longer walk to get hot dogs at Tony’s, burgers and ice cream at Holsten’s, wonderful Greek fare at Stamna, Thai food at Boonsong, and terrific sandwiches and meats at Mastriano’s. And, until I find the little [word removed by Baristanet] who stole my car, I am going to continue to walk this neighborhood for most of my needs

  15. POSTED BY jerseygurl  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    Walkability was also non-negotiable for us when we bought our house. We have one car which my husband has to use for work to his early and odd hours and multiple locationsbut I take the train daily and on my way home from I often do stop at King’s or Angelbeck’s and walk home with the bags. And walkability in retirement is even more of a key issue. We are only contemplating places that will allow us to live without having to drive so we won’t have to move yet again when that’s no longer an option. We’d love to stay in Montclair, but the taxes along with our decimated retirement portfolio have taken that option off the table.

  16. POSTED BY Conan  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    jerseygurl, I know an ideal, walkable location for your retirement: New York City. That’s where I am planning to retire, as soon as that lottery ticket I just bought when I walked down to Krauzer’s pays off.

  17. POSTED BY Tudlow  |  June 15, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    I grew up in the backwoods of PA and the only place we walked to was the secret hiding places in the woods to drink cheap beer, smoke pot and make out with our boyfriends/girlfriends. So I see this town as walkable. I walk to dinner, to the park, to the movies, to CVS and my husband walks to the train every morning. (I don’t walk to Red Lobster, though.) I didn’t know that walkable meant people had to schlep their dry cleaning home.

  18. POSTED BY fabioj  |  June 15, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    Walkability is key, especially with kids. In Bloomfield by the green, we walk/bike as much as we can. The kids love walking to the train station (for NYC or Hoboken), carvel ice cream, Wednesday classic cruises, the diner, Wattsessing park, etc.

  19. POSTED BY cathar  |  June 15, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

    Walleroo, what does it mean that your kids “score jack?” I’m curious. Do they go to the shopping district to replenish (on a weekly basis I’d then wager) your stock of Jack Daniels?

    I’m sure the concept of “walkability” has changed over the years. When I was a teenager, we regularly walked the 1.1 mile “circuit” between two town parks according to the tolerance for us hanging out in them idsplayed by the local cops. And then, at evening’s end, we also all walked back home un various directions. I doubt anything similar occurs today, if only because kids have cellphones and call for rides home.

    Yes, too, it is healthier to walk more. But the streets also seem filled with more “bad guys” than they used to.

    The nicer the town hereabouts, it seems the less likely that folks live within easy walking distance of its downtown. Millburn, for example. Or Ridgewood or, God forbid, someplace like West Milford, where the lots are big but there’s also comparably great necessity for school buses.

  20. POSTED BY Kristin  |  June 15, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    I really miss walking as much as I did in Brooklyn. As does my waistline.

    While it only takes about 15 minutes to walk to Watchung Plaza (with two toddlers about 30 minutes), it’s hindered by threats of rain, snow-stuffed sidewalks, time constraints, and a growing laziness. So my hopeful desire to walk everywhere within a reasonable amount of time has become a reasonable desire to walk a few places within thirty minutes. Once the kids are older, I’m sure (maybe just hopeful) that we’ll do more walking.

  21. POSTED BY walleroo  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

    I put that line in, cathar, just to see if you were paying attention.

  22. POSTED BY cathar  |  June 15, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    You “know jack” about me, walleroo, if you honestly think that I care about when and how often you are ever in, as they say, “your cups.” (Infrequently, I’d guess, to your credit.)

    But your frequent offenses against the English language, yes, they bother me a great deal.

  23. POSTED BY croiagusanam  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    ‘Roo, cathar cares so little about you that he waited an entire 16 minutes before responding.

    You matter so little in his “world”.

  24. POSTED BY cathar  |  June 15, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    Perhaps I was simply between belts myself, croiagusanam. Perhaps we both were, since fixating and remarking on a time span (in this case of a mere 16 minutes) is exactly the sort of thing topers in my experience do sometimes.

    Or perhaps I simply turned on Baristanet as the 10 o’clock news was winding down, I already knew the late baseball scores and the worth-seeing seeing “God’s Little Acre” is being taped.

    Or were you simply trying to be too clever by half?

  25. POSTED BY Tudlow  |  June 16, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    But your frequent offenses against the English language, yes, they bother me a great deal.

    What an odd thing to say. Wally’s writing is near flawless–he writes exquisitely.

  26. POSTED BY croiagusanam  |  June 16, 2011 @ 6:55 am

    Or perhaps cathar, you were simply being, well, “you”.

    I think that far more likely.

  27. POSTED BY jaygee  |  June 16, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    Once again, an interesting discussion degenerates into posters trading insults. Enough!

  28. POSTED BY ncrnation  |  June 16, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    Having grown up in Livingston near the route 10 circle where the only place I was allowed to walk to while growing up was my middle school, I can attest to the importance of walkability. It was very frustrating before i could drive to feel constantly trapped in a very small radius.

    Since graduating from college i’ve lived in Caldwell, Bloomfield and Montclair and i make great use of everything around me, even walking to the train for work, the y to work out, or wholefoods for shopping. i love the convenience and the cost savings of using less gas.

    Roo i totally agree that people have just gotten downright lazy. I often amaze at the people who take the elevator or escalator to go 1 floor!

  29. POSTED BY dc traveler  |  June 16, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    Cathar, I’ll bet you would have walked less between the parks if your father let you use the horse and buggy.

  30. POSTED BY walleroo  |  June 16, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Gee thanks, Tud!

  31. POSTED BY Spiro T. Quayle  |  June 16, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    It is possible that the today’s suburbs that require a car will turn into the slums of tomorrow –this as the suburbs with mass transit and walkable centers become the choice of the affluent.
    Livingston McMansions will be carved into cheap rentals. Each apartment will get it’s own palladian window with foam trim.

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