Holmdel, N.J.: A Friendly Community ‘Full of Peace and Quiet’

Billy and Jennifer Gambardella lived on Staten Island most of their lives, so even after moving to Holmdel, N.J., three years ago, they often found themselves back in the old neighborhood. He would visit his mother and friends, or get a haircut. She was there every day for her middle-school teaching job, and frequently to get her nails done. But all of that changed when the coronavirus struck.

Ms. Gambardella’s teaching moved online, and suddenly many of the people the couple used to visit on Staten Island were eager to take a break from their smaller yards and enjoy the Gambardellas’ one-acre spread, complete with an in-ground pool and an outdoor kitchen.

“I haven’t been back in six months,” said Mr. Gambardella, 49, a wealth-management broker who worked in Midtown until the pandemic sent him home to the four-bedroom, Tudor-style house the couple bought in 2017 for $915,000. “There wasn’t much reason to go back, and it was so much easier to have everyone here instead.”

Like many New York City transplants, the Gambardellas have discovered the many attractions of this 18-square-mile Monmouth County township with nearly 17,000 residents: a variety of appealing houses, most on an acre or more; extensive open space; excellent schools; and several commuting options. And all of those things have become even more attractive since the coronavirus lockdown.

Meg Miguelino grew up in Holmdel, which she described as “full of peace and quiet, and a very friendly place. It was always my goal to move back.”

Last December, she and her husband, Andre Miguelino, moved from a one-bedroom rental apartment in Kearny, N.J., to a 1970 four-bedroom center-hall colonial in Holmdel, which they bought for $545,000. As her Manhattan-based publishing job went remote in March, Ms. Miguelino, 33, said she felt particularly fortunate that they made the move when they did: “Working from my home office, I can look out the window to see all the trees. I can walk around the neighborhood and never feel freaked out, which is very different from my friends in Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

For many, Holmdel is best known as the site of the PNC Bank Arts Center, a popular open-air concert venue visible from the Garden State Parkway that can accommodate as many as 17,500 people. Since performance spaces across New Jersey have shut down, the amphitheater has become something of a ghost town, although it was used as a Covid-19 testing site this spring.

Before the pandemic, Holmdel residents were able to avoid concert traffic jams by using back-road access to the center, said Nicole Rabbat Levine, 33, a broker associate with Sotheby’s International Realty. That’s one of many advantages she sees to the place where she grew up and now sells houses, often to former high school classmates like Ms. Miguelino.

“It was always so beautiful, but it needed a face-lift. In the last 15 years, they’ve focused on entertainment and made it a place people want to come,” Ms. Rabbat Levine said. “Before, millennials thought, ‘Why do I want so much land?’ Now, with all the large houses with home offices, it’s become a hot spot.”

Holmdel means “pleasant valley” in Dutch, but since it’s just 12 miles west of the Jersey Shore, the township also carries a whiff of coastal air. Vast swaths of open, flat terrain and large public parks surround neighborhoods with a range of housing, from modest ranch houses and split-levels to expansive homes, most built in the past 50 years. Several neighborhoods have zoning that specifies a minimum one-acre lot.

The redevelopment of the boxy, modernist building that served for decades as the research and development headquarters for Bell Labs, AT&T and Alcatel-Lucent is one of the largest adaptive reuse projects ever undertaken in New Jersey. The two-million-square-foot building with a five-story atrium now houses offices, stores, restaurants and recreational spaces, as well as the public library. Called Bell Works, the site serves as Holmdel’s de facto town center, as most other retail and commercial activity is limited to strip malls along Route 35.

Two of the newest residential developments border Bell Works: the Reserve, with about 40 large single-family homes, and the Regency, a 55-and-over community with about 180 townhouses. Both projects were built by Toll Brothers.

As of late August, there were 70 single-family houses for sale in Holmdel, according to the Monmouth Ocean Multiple Listing Service, along with six townhouses and 12 active-adult homes. The most expensive was a six-bedroom, 7,966-square-foot house built in 2014 on 3.67 acres, listed for $2.999 million; the least expensive was a 1994 three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom condominium, listed for $329,500.

Inventory is at “a record low,” said Donna Bruno, a Holmdel resident and an agent with Coldwell Banker. “Now, because there are so many buyers, when a house comes on the market, within hours there are multiple offers, at asking price or better.”

The average price of the 102 homes sold in Holmdel through Aug. 18 of this year was $758,174, slightly lower the $801,603 average for the 107 sales during the same period in 2019.

During the pandemic, residents are increasingly taking advantage of the 619-acre Holmdel Park, which includes Historic Longstreet Farm, a re-created 19th-century farm with an arboretum, a fishing and skating pond, picnic and playground areas, and trails.

Another popular destination is Fox Hollow Vineyards, a picturesque 94-acre site where visitors can sample wine and take in live music on the weekends. The winery is run by the Casola family, sixth-generation farmers who also own A. Casola Farms, a 200-acre nursery, greenhouse and farm stand on Route 34 that offers pumpkin picking in the fall and a winter wonderland during the holidays.

Adjacent to the PNC Bank Arts Center is the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, an open-air installation with sculptures, a museum and a granite wall inscribed with the names of the 1,563 New Jersey residents who lost their lives in Vietnam.

Holmdel’s public-school students move through the district’s four schools, attending Village Elementary School from prekindergarten through third grade; Indian Hill School from fourth through sixth grade; William R. Satz Middle School for seventh and eighth grades; and Holmdel High School for ninth through 12th grade.

In the 2018-19 school year, the high school had 958 students, 51 percent of whom took at least one of the school’s 16 Advanced Placement courses. On the 2018-19 SAT tests, students scored an average of 603 for reading and writing, and 616 in math, compared with state averages of 539 and 541.

The school mascot is a hornet, a reference to what British soldiers called the “hornets’ nest” of Continental soldiers they fought in the area during the Revolutionary War.

Private schools in Holmdel include St. Benedict School for prekindergarten through eighth grade and St. John Vianney High School; both are Catholic.

Commuters to Manhattan, 40 miles north, have access to a number of major highways and bridges, if they choose to drive. Or they can catch a New Jersey Transit train in nearby Hazlet; trips to Penn Station take about 70 minutes and cost $15 one way or $436 a month.

Academy buses run from the PNC Center to Wall Street and Port Authority; the trip takes an hour and costs $19 one way or $400 a month. Another option is the New York Waterway Belford Ferry, which departs from neighboring Middletown; the 42-minute trip costs $21.50 one way or $635 a month.

Arno Allan Penzias, a physicist, and Robert Woodrow Wilson, an astronomer, discovered the presence of cosmic microwave background radiation while working with the Bell Labs horn antenna in Holmdel in 1964. Their discovery gave support to the Big Bang theory and won the scientists the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics. The hilltop site of the 50-foot large horn antenna was named a National Historic Landmark in 1988.

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