With new luxury housing and a $256 million PATH station, the Hudson County city is hoping to turn itself into a place millennials want to call home.
Steve Defontes spent years living in West Orange, N.J., and commuting to work in Lower Manhattan before he decided, last year, that he was ready for a change. When his house sold faster than he expected, he was forced to make a quick decision about where to go, and his mind naturally went to the town he had been driving to each day to catch the PATH train: Harrison, N.J.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do that will disrupt my life the least?’ And I thought of all those buildings that were going up around where I parked my car every day,” said Mr. Defontes, 45, the president of Big Idea Advertising.
In December, he moved into a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in one of them, a luxury rental building a three-minute walk from the new PATH station, cutting his commute in half. And at $2,180 a month, he estimates his rent is about half of what he would pay in a similar amenity-filled building in New York City. The move was expedient, but the outcome turned out to be much better than Mr. Defontes anticipated.
“My street is tree-lined, and it’s so nice and quiet,” he said. “I’m not sure if a lot of people have caught on to it yet that this is a really good place to live.”
Arvind Garg also took a practical route to Harrison. After getting a job in New York City four years ago, Mr. Garg, a financial data analyst who is now 38, planned to move north from New Brunswick, where he was living at the time. But Jersey City, he decided, was too expensive, and Newark too unpredictable. In Harrison, he thought, he would be able to find “a nice house with good people around.”
In 2017, after renting for a couple of years, he and his wife paid $630,000 for a newly constructed two-family house at the north end of town. They live in the bottom two floors and rent the two-bedroom unit upstairs for about $2,000 a month.
Although the house is “cookie-cutter — if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” Mr. Garg said, he is happy with their choice of Harrison, where they have enrolled their 2-year-old daughter in the town’s free preschool: “It’s a nice community, it’s closer to the city and my work, and there’s plenty of parking.”
Tucked into an elbow of the Passaic River across from Newark, this 1.2-square-mile town was home to large manufacturers like RCA, the Edison Lamp Company, Otis Elevator and the Hartz Mountain Corporation for much of the 20th century. But the factories that made all those radio tubes, light bulbs and pet products have been replaced in recent years by high-end apartment buildings and hotels. Now residents, builders and investors are predicting that Harrison — just one PATH stop beyond the Journal Square station in Jersey City — will be the next Jersey City or Hoboken: an urban setting offering millennials an easy commute into the city.
“It’s too good to be true right now,” said Lino Silva, 63, a partner at TIBO Construction, describing his second career of flipping houses in Harrison, which began six years ago after 35 years of owning a liquor store and deli in neighboring East Newark. “You buy a property, knock it down, build it up, and it’s sold. Most of the time it’s being sold without it even being built yet.”
David Antunes recognized the potential in Harrison years ago, when he was living in Brooklyn and doing celebrity hairstyling at NBC. “I saw the renaissance was going to take place, and I totally wanted to be part of it,” said Mr. Antunes, 49, who grew up in Newark and bought a two-bedroom riverfront condominium in Harrison in 2007 for $485,000, opening a hair salon in town as well.
“It did take a while to get here,” he said. “But I’m so glad I’ve been a part of it.”
What You’ll Find
It’s a tale of two towns in this Hudson County municipality of close to 18,000 residents. North of the Interstate 280 overpass, the neighborhoods largely retain the feel of older urban towns in North Jersey: tightly packed blocks lined with two- and three-family homes (although many are being rebuilt), mixed with small apartment buildings, churches, shops and ethic restaurants. Harrison’s multifamily zoning makes single-family houses relatively scarce.
South of the overpass, on Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard (named for a former mayor who served for nearly 50 years), are mid-rise, glass-and-steel rental buildings with names like 330 Harrison Station, Urby, Cobalt Lofts, Vermella and Steel Works, where residents enjoy outdoor pools, firepits, yoga classes and cafes. This area, sometimes called SoHa, also has two hotels and the mushroom-shaped Red Bull Arena, home to one of the area’s professional soccer teams.
Luis Pinto, a real estate agent with the Bixler Group, grew up in Harrison and has seen the town go through various changes over the years. “It’s always been an immigrant place — Peruvian, Portuguese, Spanish, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Pakistani, Nigerian,” said Mr. Pinto, 44, who is part of the once-predominant Portuguese community. “It’s very diverse, and everybody really likes each other.”
What may appear to recent arrivals like an overnight transformation is, in fact, the long-awaited manifestation of a 22-year-old redevelopment plan to turn 250 acres of industrial land into transit-oriented residential and commercial properties, with most of the buildings in proximity to the $256 million PATH station that opened in June.
What You’ll Pay
As of mid-October, there were 27 properties for sale in Harrison, from a new two-family house with seven bedrooms and five bathrooms listed for $784,999, to a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium in a three-story building listed for $199,000.
River Park, a condominium complex facing the Passaic River and the Newark skyline, currently has four units for sale, from $410,000 to $475,000.
The average sales price for a home from January through mid-October of 2019 was $478,000, compared to an average price of $425,000 for the same period in 2018, according to the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service.
In mid-October, there were 17 rental properties listed on the MLS, ranging from $1,200 to $3,200 a month, but that doesn’t include apartments in new high-rises, which handle their own leases, Mr. Pinto said. Monthly rents in the new buildings range from $1,735 for a studio to $4,700 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Residents who gravitate to the northern end of town will find a verdant escape in the 46-acre West Hudson Park (which Harrison shares with Kearny), with walking trails, tennis courts, ball fields and fishing ponds. Pocket parks near the town hall and Holy Cross church also offer a respite from urban life.
Those living in the northwestern section bask in the aroma of fresh bread emanating from Pechter’s Baking Company, a regional producer of baked goods that has a small retail store on site.
Dining options are more plentiful in the older part of town, or across the Jackson Street Bridge in the Ironbound district of Newark.
When an international match is being played at the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena, which opened in 2010, the area comes alive with the colors and gear of the participating nations, said Mr. Defontes, the advertising executive: “When it’s Ecuador, everybody who comes out is wearing the Ecuadorean colors. On another day, it’s all Brazilian flags and shirts.”
Harrison is one of New Jersey’s 31 Abbott districts — a program meant to level the spending between poor and affluent school districts — with funding provided by the state. Harrison Early Childhood Program offers free prekindergarten to all residents. Children in prekindergarten through third grade attend Lincoln Elementary School; those in fourth and fifth grades go to Hamilton Intermediate School; and students in grades six through eight attend Washington Middle School.
Harrison High School has about 700 students, with 52.9 percent living in households where Spanish is the first language, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. In 2018, 61 percent of the graduating class was awarded the state’s Seal of Biliteracy. In 2013, the high school was named a Blue Ribbon School, a national recognition of achievement.
Private options include St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, for kindergarten through 12th grade, or Saint Peter’s Prep, an all-boys high school in Jersey City.
Harrison is about nine miles west of Lower Manhattan and accessible via the Holland Tunnel, although most commuters opt to take the PATH train, which runs 24 hours a day from Harrison. The PATH train to the World Trade Center takes about 20 minutes; those going to Midtown Manhattan can switch trains at Journal Square and travel to Penn Station in about 28 minutes. A single PATH ticket is $2.75; a monthly pass is $89.
Running for re-election in 1912, President William Howard Taft was urged to visit Harrison during his campaign tour. Before a crowd of more than 6,000 residents and workers, the president proclaimed, “You should be proud of this hive of industry.” The phrase was adapted to become the town’s now-outdated nickname, the Beehive of Industry.