News Column

Empty-nesters move downtown

July 28, 2014

By Kathleen Lynn, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

July 28--Since she moved from a single-family home to an apartment in downtown Englewood, Linda Kourakos has been able to spend less time in the car and more time on foot.

"You walk out the door, you have shops and restaurants, you have the Bergen Performing Arts Center," said Kourakos, 62, a retired interior designer who moved from East Brunswick to be closer to her daughters in Bergen County. "I felt if I was downsizing, it would be nice not to have to get into a car all the time."

Her neighbor, Andrea Diamond, also moved from a single-family house to the Towne Centre apartments in Englewood.

"You can walk to everything, the supermarket, the post office, the library, restaurants," said Diamond, 65, who has children and grandchildren nearby.

As Diamond and Kourakos found, a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle can be a good fit for people who want to drive less (or not at all) as they age. And North Jersey was highlighted in a recent report by New Jersey Future for having towns that can work for seniors because they offer walkable neighborhoods, downtown shopping areas and good access to public transportation.

But there's one problem: Seniors often want smaller, low-maintenance rentals or condos, and there's not enough of this type of housing in North Jersey, even in towns that are otherwise a good match for aging residents, according to the New Jersey Future report, "Creating Places to Age in New Jersey."

"Plenty of towns in Bergen and Passaic counties with traditional downtowns and walkable neighborhoods have relatively short supplies of the smaller homes and apartments that are more suitable for older residents," the report said. "Many municipalities will need to create more aging-friendly housing options."

New Jersey's builders are moving in this direction already; multifamily units account for well over half of the housing units built in the state in the last couple of years. But many of these new properties are not near walkable downtowns, and many are aimed at the luxury market, which can be a challenge for seniors.

"Affordability is going to be a problem," said Tim Evans, author of the New Jersey Future report.

The issue is becoming more urgent as the population ages. About one in four New Jerseyans are over 55, and almost 200,000 are 85 and older, according to the report. And as people age to the point where they can no longer drive, they can become isolated if they're not able to walk to the supermarket, library, restaurants and houses of worship.

Several recent redevelopment proposals aim to bring more multifamily housing into downtown shopping areas, including Hackensack's ambitious plan, centered on the mile-long Main Street shopping district, from the Bergen County Courthouse to Sears. More than 1,500 housing units have been proposed for downtown, according to Mayor John Labrosse.

"As a city, we want to target young professionals and people who are retired and don't want to cut the grass anymore," Labrosse said. He expects the new residents to be drawn to the idea of having

stores and restaurants close at hand, as in more expensive cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City.

"People want to get back to a Main Street type of lifestyle, where you can do your shopping on Main Street, go have a beer at a pub and sit outside at a restaurant," Labrosse said.

Englewood's master plan encourages "over-the-shop downtown living ... with an orientation toward empty-nesters." Towne Centre on West Palisade Avenue, where Diamond and Kourakos live, is one example, along with Palisade Plaza across the street. Both opened around seven years ago, before the recession and housing bust.

Diamond said she and her husband, Marshall, a dentist, found few towns that offered the convenience they found in Englewood.

"We like that it's close to the city. We like that we have buses [into New York]; we use them a lot," Diamond said. And they don't miss living in a single-family house: "We don't want the bother anymore," said Diamond, who formerly lived in Great Neck, N.Y.

Fort Lee also is becoming more dense, moving forward with a 16-acre redevelopment project that will bring well more than 1,000 new apartments into the downtown. And developers have built several multifamily projects in Morristown's downtown and near its commuter rail station.

But many older households can't find this type of housing in their towns. Ron Aiosa, a Coldwell Banker agent in Butler, is working now with empty-nesters selling their five-bedroom home in Pequannock.

"They would love to stay in town, or in a town nearby, but finding housing that fully suits their needs has been difficult," Aiosa said. "They often ask why something like that doesn't exist."

The idea of adding multifamily housing to downtowns isn't universally popular. Three new multi-family buildings have been proposed for Ridgewood's business district; they've met with resistance from some residents who say the proposed developments are too big and would make the town too urban, as well as add traffic and schoolchildren.

Evans said that in general, towns that already have a number of apartments are more likely to be open to the idea of denser residential development downtown.

Some towns, such as Mahwah, offer a good supply of multifamily housing, but the units are frequently not within walking distance of shopping and other services.

Marilyn Nuber, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Ridgewood, and her husband, Jim, a financial executive, recently chose condo living over a walkable lifestyle. With their children launched, they were ready to sell their single-family home in Ridgewood, which was within walking distance of Ridgewood's shopping district. But they couldn't find a suitable place in the neighborhood, so they bought a town house in Wyckoff.

They love the freedom from maintenance, but they walk less now, because the new neighborhood has no sidewalks and is almost a mile from Wyckoff's shopping district.

When it's time to retire, the Nubers may move to Boston, where their daughter lives, or another city.

"I want to live in an urban environment because I think walking is so healthy," Marilyn Nuber said. "I want to be near restaurants, shops, theaters, and medical offices."

Even when they can find multifamily housing, the prices often surprise middle-income homeowners who hope to sell their single-family homes for a big profit, then grab a condo for a lot less. Nicer condos can easily cost as much as some single-family houses.

"One of the biggest problems is the sticker shock when the prospective downsizer goes out to look for a place," said Patricia Sudal, a Weichert agent in Ramsey. "Most want to pocket a fair amount of money from the sale of their home and have a decent amount of living space. So they are surprised when they have to compromise on one or both."


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