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.