Ten Great Places To Live
No matter what you're looking for, you'll find it in one of these ten terrific towns.
10 Great Places To Live
Not everyone in Westchester can—or wants to—live in a 6,000-square-foot colonial in Scarsdale. Some of the reasons are economic, others have more to do with lifestyles and life stages.
Young singles and DINKS (dual incomes, no kids) generally want areas that have fun places to go for entertainment, are easily accessible to and from the city and are potentially suitable locations for a starter home (or condo). Empty nesters may look for wide open spaces or quiet communities that aren’t centered around kids. For families with children, quality schools are usually paramount. Some people like privacy, others want to be part of an active neighborhood social scene. Some are partial to older homes with views, others insist on new homes with all the amenities. In other words, there is no way to define any single “best place to live” for everybody.
That’s why the places I selected (with considerable help) run the gamut from historic river towns with affordable homes to upscale hamlets in north-county horse country. Some have 30-minute train commutes to Grand Central, some more than an hour. Price-wise, Ossining and Peekskill are at the lower end of the scale; Eastchester, New Rochelle, Valhalla and Mt. Kisco are somewhere in the middle, and North Salem and Vista tilt higher, although there are homes in just about every price range in all of them. Park Hill in Yonkers and Westminster Ridge in White Plains are two unique, cohesive neighborhoods that aren’t very well known to outsiders but offer a lot of lifestyle value.
In addition to visiting communities all over the county, I talked to Realtors, residents and even a few merchants to see how they viewed their towns. While there were substantial differences from town to town, there were also a couple of common themes that ran through every conversation. For one, Westchester real estate is expensive and getting more so. For another, every person said they live in a neighborly place where people know each other and pitch in to make their community a better place to live. Come to think of it, maybe that’s one big reason there’s such demand for homes in this county.
It’s said that there are more horses than people in North Salem, which may well be true,
considering the number of horses you see grazing on the many farms lining the roads that wind through town. Old Salem Farm is a nationally known venue for equestrian competitions, while the Goldens Bridge Hunt Club is one of the oldest fox-hunting clubs in the country. The North Salem Riding Trails Association offers miles of beautiful trail riding.
“The rolling countryside is just majestic,” says Houlihan/Lawrence Sales Associate Ed Cantine. “It’s absolutely bucolic.” There is a lot of conservancy land, which was set aside for preservation as long as 25 years ago, according to Cantine. North Salem, which includes the hamlets of Croton Falls, Purdys and Peach Lake, occupies the northeastern-most part of Westchester bordering Putnam County and Connecticut.
North Salem residents frequently drive to nearby towns Danbury and Brewster to shop. While there have been some proposals for commercial development along the I-684 corridor, they haven’t gone very far because, Cantine says, “the town fathers are protective of the environment—they approach this very guardedly.” Overdevelopment can also lead to problems like those experienced at Peach Lake, a community near the Connecticut border, where the steady conversion of summer bungalows into year-round homes has overburdened the septic system and resulted in the need to build a $20 million sewer system.
Most folks in North Salem would rather see old barns, antique shops and unique destinations like the North Salem Vineyard, Westchester’s only winery, than super stores and strip malls. Not that North Salem opposes all new construction. The North Salem Free Library practically doubled its space in 2003 at a cost of $1.3 million, most of which was raised through donations and fundraisers that began in 2000. “We have areas for children’s programming now,” reports Neal Steinberg, the library’s director. “We have a meeting room separated for community use. It’s a really nice space.” The branch collection contains about 35,000 books, audio and video items, but patrons can choose from the five million volumes catalogued in all 38 libraries that are part of
the Westchester Library System and have them delivered to the North Salem Library for pickup.
“Approximately 70 percent of the homes sold
in this area are to people already living in Westchester,” says Cantine. Almost all the homes sold recently were priced well over $1 million, he reports. “In the under-a-million category, the market has moved farther and farther north to an area called Southeast in Putnam County. They have the North Salem schools but the Southeast tax base.”
Two Towns in One
Down county, the queen city of the Sound, as New Rochelle is dubbed, feels like two very different towns with New Rochelle High School in the middle. The north end of town has a leafy, suburban Scarsdale feel, while the south side is more like a cosmopolitan waterfront community. As the seagulls fly, the shoreline within the city limits measures 2.7 miles. The many irregularities and offshore islands stretch it for 9.3 miles though, allowing for plenty of marinas, public parks and private beach clubs along Long Island Sound.
Massive development in downtown New Rochelle includes new luxury apartments, loft condominiums and a new five-story transportation hub. New York-centric residents find the revitalized downtown area very convenient. One of the most desirable locations is Avalon-on-the-Sound, a 25-story high-rise rental community that opened in 2001. It has 412 units from studios to three-bedroom apartments with rents ranging from $1,200 to $6,000 per month, as well as an outdoor pool, a full fitness center, a basketball court and a business center. “About 60 percent of our residents commute into the city, and we’re right opposite the train station,” says Rachelle Jacobs, senior community manager. The complex has been so successful, the company is building a 39-story high-rise with 500 units across the street from the existing one.
A few blocks away are the Sound Shore neighborhoods of Sunhaven, Residence Park (near the College of New Rochelle) and Sans Souci, which has a private beach. Says Realtor Thomas J. Ralph, who grew up in New Rochelle, “In terms of affordability, I’m partial to Sunhaven, which borders Larchmont. It’s a very nice section, very residential, with no multi-family houses. Sans Souci is more expensive, with homes well over a million dollars or more near the water.” Ralph recently sold an approximately 2,000-square-foot home on Sunhaven’s Harding Drive for $480,000.
Linda Grippo, who has lived in Sunhaven for 17 years, says her family takes full advantage of the neighborhood’s location. “We’re right here on Long Island Sound, so my son took sailing lessons this year in the sailing camp.” They also belong to a beach club on Davenport Neck, a peninsula on the Sound.
In a recent special education report, The Wall Street Journal cited the New Rochelle school district as one of the top 20 in the nation, and there are several private and parochial schools within the city’s borders. In addition, several thousand students are enrolled in Iona College and The College of New Rochelle.
Peaceful, Quaint with
Until recently, five-year OSSINING resident Paulo Magalhaes lived in a condo on Hudson View Hill in the village, where the name describes one of the town’s principal attractions, tremendous overlooks of the Hudson River. Now he lives in a well-kept home on White Birch Drive, where he and his wife moved to accommodate the birth of their daughter in April 2003. “One reason we didn’t want to leave Ossining is because of the river views,” he says. “Ossining is peaceful, quaint and has a sense of community.”
Affordable homes—at least by Westchester standards—with Hudson River views are one of Ossining’s hallmarks. Smaller, older homes overlooking the river are priced in the mid-$400,000s, according to Rosemary D’Addato of Century 21 Haviland Realty, while many condos and co-ops offer first-time homeowners similar advantages. The town is built on terraced hills along the Hudson with views of Hook Mountain, High Tor and even the skyscrapers in Manhattan on a clear day. D’Addato reports that a four-bedroom, two-bath Cape Cod on Martin Street recently came on the market for $359,000. Prices between $400,000 and $500,000 are more common, although homes costing $1 million or more aren’t unusual.
The Village of Ossining is about as middlebrow as you can get. You’re as likely to see a Subaru as you are a BMW, and signs for yard sales, tag sales and parish festivals dot the utility poles in town, fluttering beneath the banners touting Historic Ossining. “You can go up to Route 6 where you have Wal-Mart and Kohls and all of those stores,” D’Addato says. “You’re 15 minutes from White Plains where you can go to all that shopping.” She also noted that a new Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts recently opened, so Ossining now provides everything necessary to sustain life as we know it.
Croton Avenue attests to the mixed ethnic nature of the community. Doca’s Restaurant offers Portugese food and drink and Brasserie Swiss serves up fabulous fondues while, just up the street, the Main Street Steakhouse (formerly Parise’s) recently reopened after an ownership change and a renovation. Another sign of changes in the community is the public school system, which reports that the number of Hispanic/Latino students grew from 15 percent of the student body in 1992 to 32 percent in 2003. There’s also been a concentration on increasing staffing in the Ossining schools, with the faculty staffing growing 41 percent, while the student population increased by 29 percent during that same period.
While the town is drawing many new residents, not too many choose to leave. “Many of the people have lived for generations in Ossining,” says D’Addato. “Grandparents, fathers, children—they all stay in Ossining.”
John Frustace can attest to that. He and his brother Frank operate what they believe is the oldest continuously operating business in downtown Ossining, Hudson Pharmacy & Surgical Supplies, which their grand-father established in the 1930s. Frustace says a couple of his customers “were customers of my grandfather. They remember when he used to have a soda fountain in his store.”
Small Town in a Big City
I frequently Drive within a block of Westminter Ridge, but never knew just how special it was until Bill Vrooman, CEO of Nelson-Vrooman Realtors brought it to my attention. This “secret” neighborhood has about 140 homes and an active social scene centering around the private swim club at spring-fed Todd’s Pond, which has a small sandy beach with full-time lifeguards, a picnic area and a swim team. Residents walk to the lake for spring and summer community gatherings, a July Fourth clambake and an end-of-summer party. They also celebrate Halloween with a haunted trail through the nearby woods, and there’s caroling throughout the neighborhood at Christmas time.
“It’s absolutely heaven-sent for people raising kids,” says Vrooman, who has lived in the Ridge for 34 years, manages the local slow-pitch softball team that has been around for 35 years and has added to his house three times “because I refuse to move.” Home prices range from just under $500,000 to well over $1 million, and the varied housing stock includes everything from “Cape Cods to charming English Tudors to one-of-a-kind homes,” Vrooman says. Most of the homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s, though some were built as recently as three years ago. Even though the White Plains school district practices “Parent’s Choice,” which allows parents to choose any of the city’s five elementary schools, most Westminster Ridge residents send their kids to the nearby George Washington Elementary School.
The adjacent New York City watershed area cuts the Ridge off from nearly everything else. Access is from Hall and Orchard Streets, but some of the winding neighborhood streets dead-end on either the community lake or the watershed property. “It’s kind of self-contained, which enhances it,” says Hope Scully, who built a home in the neighborhood, then moved to another house in the Ridge this summer when her family outgrew their first home. “It’s like a small town in a big city,” she continues. “That’s nice for the kids growing up in this area, which is kind of fast-paced.” Still, residents are only minutes away from the shopping in White Plains, I-287, the Bronx River Parkway and Metro-North.
Rob Walsh, a Broadway ticket broker with offices in Greenwich, CT, moved into the neighborhood nine years ago from Port Chester. He’s experienced everything the Ridge has to offer, including having a deer chase him into a tree and breaking his hand while making a diving catch for the softball team. Still, he says, “If I hit the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t move. It’s one of those kinds of places.”
“All the people in the neighborhood know one another,” Walsh continues. It’s the kind of neighborhood where, if he takes his black Labrador, Jackie, out for a walk, he says, “it could take me up to an hour for a 10-minute walk” as neighbors meet and greet them. He talks about his neighbor Walter Brady, who is in charge of a white board (called the “Brady Board”) displayed at one of the neighborhood’s main intersections. “He puts all the events at the lake and all the kids’ birthdays on the board,” Walsh says. “Walter is the ‘mayor’ of the neighborhood, that one guy who gets everybody working on things.”
Larry Berglas, an attorney in White Plains and president of the Lakenridge Club, bought his family’s home in the Ridge in 1999 on the recommendation of friends. He has two daughters, ages 10 and five, who spend nearly every waking moment at the lake. That can be a problem, Berglas chuckles, because “it can be tough getting your kids home at dinner time.” After a day at the lake, though, “the kids around here sleep well at night, that’s for sure.”
A New England Community
Vista is a tiny place tucked away in a northern corner of the county, actually closer to Greenwich, CT, than to White Plains, and it’s one of the last areas in the county where you can purchase a newly-built home for under $1 million. Depending on your location, you might use either the Katonah or the New Canaan, CT, train stations to reach Manhattan. There’s very little commercial development, which completes the feel of real country living that the area affords. Driving through the area, you may see a couple of restaurants, the two garden centers or the shopping center but mostly you’ll encounter a collection of homes from many eras.
“There’s been very little commercialization, and, to some ways of thinking, that’s the beauty of it,” says Ed Cantine, a sales associate in the Katonah office of Houlihan/Lawrence. “We’re still very much a New England community.” That feel is reflected in places like the Rufus Smith House on Route 123, which dates to the late 1700s and once served as the Vista Post Office.
One of the community’s most attractive features is the presence of relatively affordable, newer homes. “In the last 25 years, Vista is where most of the new home construction has taken place in the medium price range,” Cantine says. Today, new homes start around $900,000, which is attracting new families. Public school students attend the highly regarded Katonah-Lewisboro schools.
Susan Rowan, who has lived in Vista for 25 years, likes the variety of people in town. “An interesting mix of people live here,” she says. “There are some families who have lived here for many, many years, and then there are newer families,” who have moved into the new developments. One of the drawbacks to Vista that she points out (although it may be considered an advantage to others) is the lack of places for kids to go and things for them to do outside of sports and school activities. “There’s no real hang-out area,” she says. “A lot of the teenagers even go to Katonah, thinking it’s more metropolitan.”
Not that Vista completely lacks convenient shopping. The Oak Ridge Shopping Center has struggled somewhat due to the low population density, but that seems to be changing. It contains Greenwich Produce, a liquor store, a nail salon, a bagel place, a drug store and a beverage store. According to Rowan, “Most people go to Pound Ridge, Ridgefield, or even Danbury for their weekly grocery shopping.”
Vista is also home to a couple quality restaurants. L’Europe specializes in classic French cuisine, which is delivered to the table with dramatic flair. Owner Rui Toska and his brother, Aris, are often seen tableside chatting with diners. Not far away is Nino’s, where Aldo and Nick Ahmetaj present generously portioned fine Italian dishes. “You might get dressed up a little bit” to go to Nino’s, according to Rowan, but “you can also pick up a great pizza to take out there.”
Good Golf, Great Shopping
And a Fabulous Location
One of Eastchester’s best features is Lake Isle Country Club, one of only two municipally owned clubs in the county (the other is in Rye). Residents of the Town of Eastchester, which also includes Tuckahoe and Bronxville, can enjoy an 18-hole, par-70 golf course, five swimming pools, tennis and food service by purchasing an annual membership (comprehensive family memberships cost $1,660 per year) or simply paying a daily fee. Non-residents must be guests of a member. The club has about 6,000 members (two-thirds for swimming only) and employs more than 100 local teens every summer, according to General Manager George Papademetriou, who started working at Lake Isle as a tennis court attendant when he was 17, worked there while going to Iona College, and was named general manager of the facility this year.
Frank Craparo, owner of Homestead Mortgage Services, Inc., bought a home this year in the Huntley Estates area behind Town Hall on Knox Road specifically because of the club. “We were looking for a place where I could play golf at a reasonable price,” he says, “so we moved to Eastchester because of Lake Isle.”
Access to good shopping is another advantage of living in Eastchester, according to Pat Arena, who has managed the Prudential Ragetté Eastchester office since 1994. “We have the Vernon Hills Shopping Center which houses Lord & Taylor, Gap, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Talbots, Maurice Villency and more,” she says. Convenient location is a major perk, and Arena points out that Eastchester is centrally located between the Hutchison River and Bronx River Parkways. As if all this weren’t enough, Eastchester has revered schools which are noted for their relatively small class sizes. As they are elsewhere in the county, home prices are rising in Eastchester, although there are single-family homes starting at $475,000, Arena says. There aren’t too many condos in town, but there are townhouses at Lake Isle, which start at just over $600,000. There are also co-ops at Garth Road in the heart of Eastchester, as well as at Oak Ridge, Sagamore Road and Interlaken on California Road. “A one-bedroom co-op on Garth Road, Oak Ridge or Interlaken, would start at $175,000,” she says. “Oregon Avenue condos start at over $200,000 for a two-bedroom.”
The town is taking steps to keep pace with other communities in the county, with an advisory board studying the possible renovation of the downtown area. It’s also declared a moratorium on new construction while it works out the mini-mansion problem where homes are expanded out of proportion to the property size, according to Arena.
Mid-Sized Homes, Rolling Hills And a Spectacular Park
When I think of Valhalla, I see Westchester Medical Center, Westchester Community College and maybe Kensico Cemetery, the final resting place of celebrities like Lou Gehrig, Flo Ziegfeld, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. All of those landmarks are there, but Valhalla is also a hamlet with gently rolling hills, large areas of open land and mid-priced homes. One of the key attractions in the area is Kensico Dam Plaza, a 98-acre park and recreation area centering around the huge cut-stone dam and a sparkling reflecting pool. The plaza is the only outdoor facility of its kind in the county and hosts concerts, antique shows and ethnic heritage festivals throughout the summer months. It’s also hugely popular with picnickers, bikers and hikers.
Lauren Goyco, who moved to Valhalla from the Bronx just over a year ago, is one of them. “I love the dam,” she says. “We went to the town pool for the Fourth of July party and to the fireworks at the dam.” Goyco says she often walks to the dam plaza, takes in one of the events or just enjoys the park’s summery setting.
Valhalla is at the southern tip of the town of Mt. Pleasant, which also includes Sleepy Hollow, Pleasantville, Hawthorne, Pocantico Hills, and Thornwood. Home prices start at about $500,000, according to Jonathan Gumowitz of Coldwell Banker Gumbo Realty. There are many 40- to 50-year-old developments, too, where most of the homes are raised ranches, Cape Cods and split levels. “One of the nicest ones is called Stonegate,” he reports. “The lot sizes there are all a half-acre to an acre, and home prices are $700,000 to $1 million.”
The Valhalla schools bring many families to the community. Little ones attend kindergarten through second grade at Virginia Road Elementary School while their friends and siblings in Grades 3 through 5 go to Kensico School, which was built three years ago with funds from a $21-million bond referendum that also gave the town a new library, as well as renovations to the Valhalla Middle School/High School and a classroom addition at the Virginia Road Elementary School. For the 2002/2003 school year, 98 percent of the high school graduating class went on to four-year colleges.
A Bustling Downtown
For a town located in the middle oF pastoral northern Westchester, Mt. Kisco is really jumping. A bustling business district is surrounded by mid-rise apartment and condominium buildings, which are surrounded in turn by neighborhoods full of gorgeously-restored Victorians, comfortable ranches and old stone farmhouses. Many residents live within walking distance of the downtown area, which has a unique mix of national chain stores and local merchants coexisting side by side.
A colorful life-size statue of Chief Kisco at the corner of Routes 117 and 133 (Main Street and North Bedford Road), seems to point to the many attractions of the downtown area when you drive into town. “For anyone who wants the feel of living in the country but still has the desire not to have to drive a half hour for a loaf of bread, this is a great place to be,” says Dee Roider, associate broker at Century 21 Country Living. “Streets don’t roll up at ten o’clock. You can be right in the center of town having dinner at a sidewalk café and a few seconds later you can be on a horse farm or in the yard of a house that was built in the 1800s.”
Last year, Robin White opened New York Dolls, a trendsetting boutique for women and teens in downtown Mt. Kisco. Why here? “It’s the place to be,” she says. “It’s got a lot of big stores, more boutiques are opening, and there are a lot of great places to eat. It’s exciting. It’s definitely a destination.” Local shops like hers operate alongside national chains like Gap, Borders and Banana Republic. Starbucks is practically next door to the Mt. Kisco Kosher Deli. There are many more great stores and shops including Golden Oldies, Fairground Attraction, The Elephant’s Trunk, etc.
Barbara Tortorello, a self-employed art historian who has lived in Mt. Kisco for 14 years, lives in a farmhouse built in 1846 on Captain Merritt’s Hill, one of the original areas developed when the town first came together before it incorporated in 1875. It’s full of fabulous Victorians and old stone homes. “It’s wonderful to be in an old house near a cosmopolitan little place,” she says. She likes Mt. Kisco so much that she and her husband bought a second house in town, an old Italianate Victorian, three years ago. “There was Sheetrock covering beautiful banisters, and wood carvings and things.” They completely restored it and her stepdaughter, son-in-law and their three children live in it now.
There are homes in literally all price ranges in Mt. Kisco, according to Roider. “You have the range of $400,000 to well over $1 million,” she says, “with an average of around $850,000.” She adds, “You can still find homes priced under $500,000.” Adding to the variety is new construction, with 212 town homes priced from $565,000 to $700,000 at Guard Hill Manor, built in the late ’80s and within walking distance of the train station and downtown. Toll Brothers is building homes at Mount Kisco Chase in the $1- to $2-million range. Currently under construction is Sutton Manor, with luxury condos starting at $283,975 for people 55 and older or those who are disabled.
Mt. Kisco is not just homes and retailers, though. Adding to the quality of life is the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts, which offers all kinds of music, dance, visual and literary arts. “We get support from Vanessa Williams, Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, Alan Menken, Westchester residents who’ve all been very generous in giving their time,” says Roider. Another big asset is Northern Westchester Hospital Center, with 1,100 full-time employees, more than 300 volunteers and 500 affiliated physicians.
In addition to many private and parochial schools, students attend either Mt. Kisco Elementary School for grades K through 5 or West Patent Elementary School in Bedford Hills, depending on where they live. They go to Fox Lane Middle School for grades 6 to 8, then on to Fox Lane High School in Bedford.
Idyll of the Hudson
Yonkers (The Park Hill section)
Considering the amount of bad press the city of Yonkers has received, it was about the last place I expected to identify as one of the county’s great places to live. A visit to Park Hill, though, erased all the graffiti-scarred images and replaced them with images of marvelously well-groomed yards and gloriously restored period homes. This neighborhood calls itself an “Idyll of the Hudson,” which is a very apt description of this 1,000-home area situated on a wooded plateau 300 feet above the river in the southernmost section of Yonkers, on the Bronx border.
Park Hill was the first planned commuter suburb in the New York area, according to Jane McAfee, associate broker with Houlihan/Lawrence in Yonkers. The neighborhood’s natural beauty was preserved by designing roads around the site’s natural rock outcroppings and centuries old oaks. Violin maker Ron Fletcher and his wife, violinist Marya Columbia, moved in June into an Arts & Crafts-style house built in 1911 from a fifth-floor walk-up loft in TriBeCa. “I had a customer, a cellist, who said we should look up here,” he says. “We liked it right away. There’s a sense of spaciousness about it, and the streets were designed around the landscape rather than the landscape being mowed down to make streets.”
Park Hill’s homes are built in a variety of styles including Queen Anne, Arts & Crafts, Cape Cod, split-level and ranch, and, while they have appreciated in value like those in every other area of the county, they’re not all out of reach. “You can get a house starting in the low $400,000s, or you can get a house for $2- or $3-million,” McAfee says. “It makes for a very nice housing stock and a very eclectic neighborhood.” For between $400,000 and $500,000, you can get a three-bedroom, two-bath home. There are also two co-op buildings in Park Hill, where prices range from $50,000 to $150,000.
The unique homes, expansive river views and quiet, well-kept nature of Park Hill have drawn some interesting residents, including Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, who established the Dia Art Foundation, which opened Dia: Beacon in 2003. They have a gorgeous stone villa in the neighborhood. Sculptor Satish Joshi lives in a one-of-a-kind Arts & Crafts colonial built with river rocks, whose smooth, round shapes lend a relaxed air to the home. The spacious yard includes several of Joshi’s sculptures. Trompe l’oeil artist Richard Haas lives in a five-story house that hangs on the side of a hill and has spectacular river views. Modern show-business figures in Park Hill include Academy Award nominees Gini Reticker and Jerry Kupfer, movie producer G. Mac Brown and Broadway producer Joey Parnes.
Park Hill’s groomed neatness isn’t accidental; it’s the result of a 15-year-old tradition. “We have a spring cleanup. We send out a thousand blue ribbons, one to everybody in the neighborhood,” McAfee explains. “When they clean up their yard, they display their blue ribbon.”