Some folks like to say that Montclair, the winsome New Jersey township 12 miles west of Manhattan, is the optimal spot for urbanites ready for more bang for their real estate buck.
“I think it’s the only town in New Jersey that’s a real mix of urban and suburbs,” says local restaurateur and Food Network personality Meny Vaknin, 36, of “Chopped” fame, who recently opened grab-and-go café Luisa, his third Montclair-based eatery.
Vaknin and his wife, Sarah Kanter, 37, left the Upper East Side for Montclair more than six years ago, shortly after opening his first eatery in the town of 40,000: tasty Mediterranean spot Mish Mish. Now Vaknin, Kanter and kids Mayaan, 7, and Leo, 4, are firmly rooted within Montclair’s charming streets, which display an alluring combo of vintage homes and small businesses.
“Everyone here has done the same direction,” says Vaknin. “They came from New York, or they came from Brooklyn, and they want a quieter corner but still want to be close to the city, work in the city and keep ties to the city.”
Montclair, home to talk show host Stephen Colbert and makeup maven Bobbi Brown, was intentionally constructed with walkability to railroad stations and travel to Manhattan in mind.
That accessibility heats up Montclair’s property market. On average, homes last about a month before they’re scooped up. Take 13 Park Terrace, a renovated 1928 Colonial that just went into contract for $529,000 after a short summer stint for sale. Erin Crawford of the Keller Williams NJ Metro Group had the listing.
While most towns have one, maybe two train stations, Montclair offers no fewer than six different stops along the Montclair-Boonton line of NJ Transit for the area’s thousands of commuters, with a seventh stop at Montclair State University. Those seeking an alternative to the well-chronicled delays of NJ Transit have the option to hop on two bus routes, both run by private transportation company DeCamp, that offer trips to the city all week long.
“Inventory is perennially low and demand is extremely high,” says broker Roberta Baldwin, co-owner of the Keller Williams NJ Metro Group. “The real estate market has been sizzling in Montclair for the last several years, with many homes selling in tense bidding situations after one weekend on the market. Montclair’s attractiveness to people who don’t want to get lost in the outer suburbs is well-documented and growing exponentially — as are prices here.”
The area’s median sales price leapt from $650,000 five years ago to $760,000 now, per Baldwin.
One single-family property to watch is a six-bedroom estate at 77 Porter Place asking $1.65 million with Karin Diana-Toder of Sotheby’s.
The “true entry point for a single-family home is $550,000 to $750,000, depending on location, size and condition,” says Sotheby’s Pierce Conway, adding that condos can range from $200,000 to $700,000.
Dual career couples seeking a family abode and a top-notch public school curriculum tend to make up the bulk of Baldwin’s customer base, but renters are also attracted to the town for its surfeit of restaurants and budding reputation as an arts and culture hub.
A 37-year-old producer and comedian, Kimberley Hellem, previously of Park Slope, shares a 950-square-foot one-bedroom she rents for $1,550/month with her boyfriend, who works deeper in New Jersey.
It’s also the perfect incubator for Hellem’s stand-up career. “My comedy career is enriched and better because there are more opportunities in the area,” says Hellem, who takes the stage monthly at the Montclair Film Center. “It’s an easier place to get your foot in the door.”
Stu Zakim runs his consultancy Bridge Strategic Communications from Montclair, where he also lives. He moved to the township post-divorce after learning that many residents, like him, also worked in the arts and entertainment field and that Montclair was home to a leading art museum, a summer jazz festival and a beloved film festival.
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“We aspire to show everything and appeal to as many audiences as we can,” says founder Bob Feinberg of the Montclair Film Festival’s 180 films over 10 days each May.
“We are not a festival people attend to sell a movie. We try to build on the organic DNA of Montclair and create a place where you will have a great time.”
It’s little surprise boutique hotels that cater to tourists and event attendees are cropping up. Last spring, Bobbi Brown and her husband, Steven Pfloker, opened The George, 32 highly decorated rooms (from $249/night). The MC Hotel, just one block from the Montclair Art Museum downtown, celebrated its grand opening in mid-August. In addition to 159 rooms (from $219/night), the venue, which was developed by Brian Stolar and managed by the Aparium Hotel Group, features Montclair’s first rooftop bar.
Liquor licenses are extremely expensive and hard to obtain, according to denizen and publicist Karen Schloss Diaz, but the town compensates by having a great BYO scene.
“Dining out can be far less expensive than in the city,” she says. “We have great wine shops in town, too — and some offer free delivery to local restaurants.”
If the town’s robust retail landscape is any indication, the plentitude of mom-and-pop specialty shops adds another salient layer of Brooklyn-inspired living.
At One Table Leg, the quirky home goods store on South Fullerton, a T-shirt for sale displays the phrase “Montclair vs. Brooklyn,” which store owner Zachary Tischbein says is a best seller. While Tischbein himself lives in the city and reverse commutes, he was inspired by a friend who opened a business in Montclair, and can’t think of a better outpost for his 4-year-old shop, which showcases beach décor, gifts and what Tischbein calls “Montclair sassy items.”
Sassy extends to the culinary offerings, too.
Fun eatery The Montclair Social Club offers an uber-Instagrammable cotton candy confection created so that it can be shared.
According to Baldwin, the culinary landscape is exploding and it’s not unusual for a restaurant or two to open every few weeks in town.
Zakim says that while he is amply satiated by the robust culinary and arts offerings in his adopted hometown, he feels it’s lacking in one area: “It needs more singles!”