Living In: Metuchen, N.J.: A ‘Doughnut Hole’ with a Storied Past and New Development

Living In: Metuchen, N.J.: A ‘Doughnut Hole’ with a Storied Past and New Development

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“I’ve become the mayor of New Street now,” Mr. Wernik, 92, said, referring to his current address and the crowd of acquaintances who continued to drop by long after he sold his family pharmacy and retired from politics. He is a little wistful about the days before World War II, when Metuchen was “a big field with a Main Street, just about.” (His family moved there from Brooklyn, in 1926, and his grandfather helped found the first synagogue.) But he is hopeful for a future that will soon include a Whole Foods. The supermarket is scheduled to open in October, just steps from his door, across from another complex under construction with 80 housing units.

100 HILLSIDE AVENUE A five-bedroom, two full- and one half-bath, single-family home built in 1907 on 0.28 acre, listed at $1,100,000. 732-561-4224

Credit
Luiz C. Ribeiro for The New York Times

Commonly described as a “doughnut hole” surrounded by Edison, N.J., Metuchen basks in its exceptionalism. It has been called the “brainy borough” ever since 1915, when a local weekly newspaper won a competition with a paper that backed Glen Ridge, N.J., for the title, each naming a prominent citizen every week until the Glen Ridge list was exhausted. That was long before a young resident named David Kotkin (later David Copperfield) entertained neighbors with magic tricks and before the poet John Ciardi translated Dante while living on Graham Avenue (he later moved to Middlesex Avenue).

But though Metuchen is a commuter town, with a rail station that accommodates 178,000 riders each month, its soul is on Main Street. The businesses, housed in time-roughened brick buildings, are small and unique. They include the Metuchen Savings Bank (established 1897), the Jewel Shop (established 1945) and a barbershop out of Norman Rockwell called Luigi’s.

Peter Cammarano, the current mayor, said the large infusion of retail a couple of blocks away from this district alarmed some business owners, but will bring stability. “We’re starting to see more foot traffic on Main Street,” he said. “We’re down to one vacancy; a couple of years ago, it was five or six.”

Ultimately, it is hoped that the developments will attract new energy to a town whose population of 13,871 has increased slightly in recent years but is still more than 2,000 shy of its height in the 1970s. “We’re getting a millennial resident coming out of Jersey City or Hoboken looking for something a little more affordable, a little more staid, in an area that isn’t quite as developed,” said Stephen Santola, an executive vice president of Woodmont Properties. Of the 162 units currently occupied at Woodmont Metro, only 10 to 15 percent are leased by Metuchen or Edison residents, he said.

What You’ll Find

Deborah Kerr, a broker with Keller Williams and a lifelong Metuchen resident, said new construction isn’t limited to downtown. Throughout the city, old buildings are being torn down and replaced with larger houses that sometimes squeeze their lots and have “raised the price point a little bit.”

Single-family homes dominate the sales market, she said, while townhouse condominiums make up about 20 percent. Among the older apartment complexes are Metuchen Manor and Redfield Village.






St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

Middlesex-Woodwild Park

Historic District





Many of the pricier houses are clustered northeast of downtown, in the Middlesex Avenue-Woodwild Park Historic District. properties there include Greek Revival, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and Craftsmen houses dating from the mid-19th century to the 1940s. The district also has important buildings like the circa 1807 Old Franklin Schoolhouse and 1869 St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Metuchen’s principal green space is Centennial Park, a 13-acre tract that opened in 2000, a century after the town was incorporated as a borough. A new playground at nearby Oakland Park is scheduled to open on Sept. 23.

What You’ll Pay

As of Sept. 10, the Central Jersey Multiple List Service website listed 54 homes for sale, from a one-bedroom condominium at the Metuchen Gardens complex on Prospect Street, priced at $165,000, to a six-bedroom 1850 house on Maple Avenue, priced at $1.75 million.

According to Ms. Kerr, 87 single-family houses were sold between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, at a median price of $484,525, after an average of 64 days on the market.

The average price of a house in Metuchen, Ms. Kerr said, is currently about $600,000. She estimated that taxes on a resold house valued at about $300,000 are $7,000 to $9,000 a year, but can be “all over the map.” New construction is subject to later assessments, she noted, so taxes are likely to be higher.

The Vibe

A town with a palate-teasing variety of ethnic restaurants, a theater surviving from the age of vaudeville and a Revolutionary War graveyard is no bland suburban outpost. Though residents cope with increasing density and traffic, not to mention the city’s recent hiring of its first parking enforcement officer, they hang onto their old-timey values. Mr. Cammarano, the mayor, said, Metuchen is still the kind of place where if “you’re on Main Street and you do something wrong, your mother finds out about it — that hasn’t changed.”

10 TULSA AVENUE A four-bedroom, two full-bath, single-family home, listed at $469,900. 732-549-1998

Credit
Luiz C. Ribeiro for The New York Times

The Schools

After declining enrollments led to a reorganization of Metuchen’s schools in the 1980s, the student population has been steadily growing. Today, said Vincent Caputo, the schools superintendent, 2,293 children are in the system, a 30 percent increase from 1991. “We’re watching it carefully,” he said of the growth, converting some spaces into classrooms and upgrading the infrastructure. “We don’t want kids sitting on radiators, and we don’t want teachers in closets.”

Moss Elementary School enrolls 170 students in prekindergarten and kindergarten.

Campbell Elementary School enrolls about 680 students in grades one through four. On 2017 state tests, 71 percent of students met standard in English versus 53 percent statewide; 70 percent met standards in math versus 51 percent statewide.

Edgar Middle School enrolls about 730 students in grades five through eight. On state tests, 81 percent of students met standards in English versus 58 percent statewide; 58 percent met standards in math versus 40 percent statewide.

Metuchen High School enrolls about 690 students. Mean SAT scores for the class of 2017 were 593 in reading and 585 in math, versus 539 and 537 statewide.

The Commute

New Jersey Transit offers frequent direct train service between Metuchen and Pennsylvania Station. The ride takes between 40 minutes and an hour, and costs $11.75 each way. A monthly pass is $336.

The History

According to a Federal Writers’ Project history of Metuchen, the town was named for Matouchin, a chief of the Raritan Indians who was believed to have died around 1700. The word is translated as “rolling upland,” though that may relate to the namesake’s home country rather than Metuchen’s actual topography. An Indian deed from 1677 refers to the area as Mateckshoning.

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