Fort Lee, Beyond Bridgegate

I grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in an apartment building that was about as close to New York City as any dwelling outside the Big Apple’s city limits can get.

The mouth of the George Washington Bridge sat less than half a mile from my childhood home. On any given day, some 140,000 cars, buses, and trucks cross into New York via Fort Lee. The vehicles come from all over: trucks hauling goods from California, buses carrying workers to Manhattan, sedans and minivans pulling carpool duty for commuters.

But despite the millions of eyeballs that gaze at Fort Lee at some point during each workday, the commuters that flow through the town have very little connection to it. Very few of them stop in town for a meal, for work, or to shop after wrestling with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. An unfiltered fifty million potential customers zip by Fort Lee annually, most barely aware of its existence.

Often, these vehicles are stuck here, immobilized in one of the traffic jams that, thanks to a certain former New Jersey governor and his “Bridgegate” scandal, have been immortalized as Fort Lee’s defining feature. Nearly all of them are from somewhere else. “When we’re in complete congestion,” Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich tells me, “I’ll get out and ask 50 cars from where do you generate? Do you know that I can go through 50 cars and get one from Fort Lee?”

Being from Fort Lee means making peace with this—we understand that the town’s existence and prosperity are inextricably linked to the fate of the world’s busiest road bridge and those who use it. Access to New York City is Fort Lee’s main export. Our relationship with the bridge is both an untapped blessing and a backbreaking curse.

But despite its proximity to Manhattan and a population density that is sure to put Fort Lee near the top of New Jersey in the 2020 census, Fort Lee is almost aggressively un-urban. There’s no direct rail connection to New York. Its thoroughfares are state-sponsored car-movers whose widths are openly hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Its Main and Main retail is four banks. It loves street parking. On paper, this borough seems to exist solely to feed and regurgitate a glut of workers every day.

That’s too bad: My hometown has a lot to offer. It boasts history that other communities dream of. During the Revolutionary War, Fort Lee hosted General Washington as he prepared to defend New York. Later, the modern film industry was born here. The Bronx Bombers and Murder Incorporated once called it home.

And lately Fort Lee has shown signs of resurgence. Its legacy Korean, Italian, Jewish, Russian, and Japanese populations have created a food scene worth stopping for. New apartments are going up, along with the kind of shopping, dining, and cultural amenities that seemed to elude it for generations. Can this in-between place finally turn into a destination unto itself?

The answer may depend, of course, on the bridge.

Fort Lee may be close to New York City, but it never seems close enough. The bus journey eastbound across the George Washington takes just 10 minutes in free-flowing traffic. Once you’re at the terminal on its other side, however, you’re still an about an hour by MTA to New York’s financial district. Brooklyn? Expect 90 minutes.

The daily traffic eastbound into New York City is almost unbearable at times, and if a tiny problem at any one part of the narrow system disrupts it, Fort Lee feels it. Because the George Washington Bridge is the only link between New Jersey and New York above 42nd Street and below Westchester County, vehicles can line up for miles down I-80, spilling into neighboring communities, which have unsuccessfully sought legal relief against commuters makeshifting local roads into work-arounds.

Supply relief seems unlikely; there’s just no more room to build new roads. Demand relief, while more sensical, awaits a fix that lies beyond Fort Lee’s abilities to execute on its own—something like the new congestion charge for Manhattan, for example, which could ease the flow of daily commuters, while politely nudging them elsewhere.

One obvious, if expensive solution: new, heavy, frequent, reliable rail service. The George Washington Bridge, which opened in 1931, was originally designed to handle rail, and at least two farfetched rail options now exist that could utterly transform Fort Lee: Connect a new, expensive New Jersey Transit line to serve this part of the state, or extend the C train from Manhattan.

But neither is likely to materialize now, or ever. “From a physical standpoint, from a financial standpoint, and from a political standpoint, I just don’t see it happening in my lifetime,” Mayor Sokolich tells me.

Opening day for the George Washington Bridge in 1931. (AP)

That bridge traffic fueled Fort Lee’s postwar emergence. Between 1960 and 1987, 15 of the borough’s tallest buildings sprouted, each at least 238 feet tall. The building boom reflected an explosion of population growth: a 50 percent increase between 1960 and 1980. But then came complacency and stagnation: a 1.5 percent population decrease in 1990. It seemed like the investment mainline into town suddenly stopped.

The traffic, however, only grew: According to the American Transportation Research Institute, Fort Lee—specifically the intersection of Route 4 and Route 95 right off the George Washington Bridge—is currently the most congested freight intersection in the country, up from second place in 2018 and third in 2009. If trucks are stuck, you can bet the cars that dot the road behind 53-foot behemoths are also slowed to a crawl. As a metaphor: Fort Lee has started to choke on the traffic that once sustained it.

When I first moved back to Fort Lee in the early 1990s, the town seemed to just subsist on its stored goodwill reserves, and on the ever-flowing bridge; it was a series of bedrooms with no living room. Just two new bread-and-butter big buildings went up between 1988 and 2014.

Sokolich, freshly minted as mayor in 2008, took on the task of building a post-bedroom Fort Lee personally. He also grew up in town, attending the same high school I did. The 1970s of our childhoods was a golden age for Fort Lee, and the mayor embarked on a project to push the town toward self-sufficiency. “When I became mayor the goal was to restore an enthusiasm, a pride,” he says.

One key part of that is a 900-unit residential development that opened in 2014 on an eight-acre plot that had sat empty since the 1970s. The amenity-laden, $5-per-square-foot Modern has since sparked plans for additional redevelopment of adjacent sites, with new retail and even more housing—think 200-plus more units, parks, community gardens, restaurants, and new coffee shops galore.

I recently moved back to Fort Lee, after leaving for a spell in 2007. I’ve noticed how these small changes have already transformed how the town feels. The number of non-Starbucks coffee shops seems to have doubled, and each is always packed with people who appear, like me, to no longer feel a need to hop the Hudson at every working moment. That’s progress.

The mayor agrees: “We’re host community to the busiest bridge in the world,” Sokolich says. “There aren’t too many towns in the galaxy that can boast $30,000 co-op studio apartments at Linwood and $40 million estates on the cliffs just half a mile away. We have to capitalize on that.”

To get a glimpse of where this might lead, look 10 miles south to Hoboken, which could serve as an example of where Fort Lee can go, if it so chooses. Its mixed-use, mixed-mode grid is walkable, bikeable, and teeming with commercial and social life. It is deliberately low-rise: City councilors might privately salivate over the enormous tax benefits sitting in its air rights, but building up would destroy the fabric Hoboken has woven over the decades since Frank Sinatra was a favorite son.

Hoboken, however, also has a critical feature that Fort Lee lacks. Its transportation complex hosts six New Jersey Rail lines that terminate at Penn Station; its PATH trains link up with the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. That ride is 20 direct minutes, about long enough for a commuter’s morning coffee to cool to drinkable temperatures.

Unless we score that $10 billion magic rail line that will never come, that’s one advantage Fort Lee will never have. But we can still fight like hell for better access and mobility options from the county, the state, the Port Authority, NJ Transit, and private operators. In our conversation, the mayor also tells me that he’s been talking with the Port Authority about starting a signage campaign, to encourage more commuters to pull over.

Those drivers need more reasons to stop. And they’re coming. Future planning efforts here can signal a clear direction of inclusivity, of the development patterns that suggest a future of big buildings and small places, of bike paths and breathtaking walks, and of a culture all its own. We can continue developing our local scene of restaurants, artists, small businesses, parks, and spaces for everyone. We can encourage local participation in events that celebrate this town’s history and future. And we can shout Fort Lee’s virtues from the top of our bridge.

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