After years of renting apartments in Jersey City and Union City, N.J., Erica and Tim Walsh decided they were ready to start a family — and that meant buying a house in the suburbs.
They set their sights on Montclair, a township in Essex County with an urban vibe that has long attracted city dwellers. It wasn’t long, however, before they came to the conclusion that, given Montclair’s property values, being in the general vicinity was good enough. That’s when they decided to focus on neighboring Little Falls instead.
“We had always heard a lot about Montclair, with its cool mix of restaurants and bars, but it was clear we couldn’t afford Montclair,” said Ms. Walsh, 33, a product manager for a finance company.
In March of 2021, the couple bought a new four-bedroom raised ranch house in Little Falls for $850,000. Two months later, they were expecting their daughter, Lucie, now 9 months old.
“We finally felt we had room to breathe,” she said, attributing the growth of their family in part to their move to Little Falls, where they have settled in happily. “We really love it here. We’ve had a chance to explore a lot of the restaurants and are becoming kind of regulars.”
Unlike its glitzier neighbor, Little Falls maintains a modest profile, said Ray Damiano, 70, a real estate broker with Premier Properties and a longtime resident, who describes the township as a working-class, family-oriented place. “People generally live below their means,” he said. “They don’t have the flashiest houses.”
Many of the township’s 13,360 residents have deep roots there, said his son, James Damiano, who was elected mayor in 2016 at the age of 30: “If you haven’t lived here for many generations, you’re brand-new.”
The Passaic River marks the northern border of Little Falls, wrapping around the Singac neighborhood and behind The Mill condominiums, a 320-unit complex in a converted carpet mill.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
But in recent years, more young couples like the Walshes have discovered this low-key Passaic County township 16 miles west of Manhattan. In August, Yuliya Krol and Jason Green moved from their rental apartment in Brooklyn into a 1950s three-bedroom ranch house in Little Falls that they bought for $600,000, after being outbid on a number of other houses in the area.
“Little Falls is nice and quiet, but you can easily drive to more populated places,” said Ms. Krol, 32, who works in sales for a technology company. “The community is so nice. Everyone is so friendly — you get the feeling that they really enjoy living and working here.”
Both couples were introduced to Little Falls by Maggie Sherman D’Aquila, a real estate agent with Compass. Ms. Sherman D’Aquila, now 43, moved to Little Falls from Park Slope, Brooklyn, five years ago, with her husband, Rob D’Aquila, a chiropractor, and their son, Talon, paying $495,000 for a four-bedroom ranch house with sunset views. (Talon is now 6 and has a younger brother, Hunter, 3.)
“I said at the time, ‘There’s no way I’m moving to New Jersey,’” she said. “New Yorkers have this unrealistic view of New Jersey, thinking it’s all I-95 or ‘The Sopranos,’ and I did, too. Now all I do is try to get people to cross the Hudson and come to the greener pastures of the Garden State.”
What You’ll Find
As it happens, a scene from the HBO series “The Sopranos” was shot in a deli in Little Falls. The township was also home to the teenage Jonas Brothers, who wrote some of their early songs while living in a three-bedroom house in the Great Notch section.
The 2.87-square-mile township is divided into three sections: the easternmost Great Notch area, where larger homes sit on higher ground; the center of the township, where older residential streets radiate out from the commercial district; and the Singac section, where mostly modest homes and bungalows sit along curved roads that abut the Passaic River.
Much of the low-lying Singac area is in a designated flood zone. In recent years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought and razed 139 homes that were subject to repeated flooding, said Mr. Damiano, the mayor, leaving what he described as a “jack-o’lantern-style” look in the neighborhood, with permanently empty lots next to existing houses.
Eager to keep property taxes down, he is upset over the loss of tax ratables from those missing homes, but he is more frustrated by the tax-exempt status of the large and growing Montclair State University. Despite being named for the neighboring township, the school straddles the two communities — and more than 80 percent of its 252-acre campus is in Little Falls.
As a state institution, all of its land and buildings are exempt from local taxation, said Andrew Mees, the university’s media relations director. With its last large property acquisition in Little Falls in 2012, he said, the school gave Little Falls a payment in lieu of taxes over the next five years totaling $882,731.
Near the center of the township, there are a number of condominium and rental apartment complexes, from The Mill at Little Falls, a condominium with about 320 units in a converted carpet mill along the Passaic River, to The Parke at Little Falls, a new townhouse development being built by Lennar.
What You’ll Pay
As of mid-December, there were 23 properties on the market in Little Falls, including 11 single family homes, seven condominiums, two multifamily homes and three lots.
The highest priced home was a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house on 0.56 acres, built in 2002 and listed for $1.2 million, with annual taxes of $22,975; the lowest priced was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment listed for $219,000, with taxes of $4,072 annually.
Prices have been fairly steady for the past several years. This year, through Dec. 12, 2022, 153 homes sold for an average price was $434,228, according to information from the Garden State Multiple Listing Service. During the same period in 2021, 147 homes sold for an average price of $424,611. And in 2020, 140 homes sold for an average price of $413,554. (That represents a slight uptick from before the pandemic: In 2019, 139 homes sold for an average price of $388,153.)
Small, one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants line East Main Street, and include popular spots like Ethan and the Bean coffee shop and A Taco Affair. The commercial center is currently getting its first face-lift in more than 50 years, with new lighting and curb upgrades.
Weekends are busy at the recently refurbished recreation center, where new turf football fields sit alongside pickleball, tennis and basketball courts and an indoor soccer center. At the heart of the complex is The Shack, an open-air restaurant where parents can take a break from watching their children’s games and grab a burger.
Another popular gathering spot is Wilmore Park. Along with its war memorials and buried time capsule, the park is the site of summer concerts, a farmers’ market and holiday celebrations.
Public school students in prekindergarten through second grade attend Little Falls School No. 2, while those in third and fourth grades attend School No. 3 and those in fifth through eighth grade attend School No. 1.
In high school, Little Falls students join those from neighboring Totowa and Woodland Park at Passaic Valley Regional High School, in Little Falls. The school has just over 1,000 students and offers 13 Advanced Placement courses, 30 honors courses and 19 dual enrollment courses, where students can earn credits at local colleges and universities. In 2020-21, students’ average SAT scores were 517 in reading and writing and 515 in math, compared with state averages of 557 and 560.
Private schools in the area include Pioneer Academy in Wayne, N.J., for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, and Monarch Montessori School, in Little Falls, for children from six weeks old to those in fourth grade.
Little Falls has two New Jersey Transit train stations: one near the center of the township and the other on the Montclair State University campus. The trip to Penn Station in Manhattan from the township station takes a little over an hour and includes a transfer in Newark; tickets are $9.25 one way or $270 for a monthly pass. The trip to Penn Station from Montclair State takes 47 to 57 minutes, with some direct train options; tickets are $7.75 one way or $227 a month.
New Jersey Transit bus No. 191 from Main Street to Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan takes about 50 minutes and costs $7 one way or $199 for a monthly pass. The No. 193 bus from Willowbrook Mall, in Wayne, N.J., takes 33 minutes to reach the Port Authority and costs $8 one way or $235 a month.
Little Falls was the central site for building the Morris Canal in the 1820s. Hundreds of workers descended on the township to dig the waterway trench and quarry Little Falls brownstone for the retaining walls. When the canal opened in 1829, canalboats powered by mules took five days to complete the 102-mile journey, bringing coal and goods from the Delaware River to Newark Bay. In 1925, when it was replaced by train transport, the canal was drained and closed. The portion running through Little Falls is now a nature preserve.
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