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01 Sep
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Keyport, N.J.: A ‘Hidden Gem’ on the Jersey Coast

When Nicole Dallara and her future husband, Michael Gangino, were ready to move out of their parents’ homes in Marlboro and Old Bridge, N.J., six years ago, they knew what they didn’t want: to live in the kind of suburban developments they grew up in. They also knew what they did want: to find a shore community with a walkable downtown and plenty of activity.

They quickly discovered that they were priced out of hot spots like Asbury Park and Belmar, so they looked farther north, heading around the coast’s bend before landing in Keyport, a more affordable one-square-mile borough in Monmouth County, facing Raritan Bay.

There, they found a four-bedroom, three-bathroom ranch house on a 0.41-acre lot. The home was in foreclosure, and they bought it for $225,000 in the fall of 2016. A planned housewarming party became an engagement party after Mr. Gangino proposed that September, during a bike ride on the Henry Hudson Trail that runs by their house.

“We were riding our bikes along the trail, where you can see the bay and the New York City skyline beyond, and he plopped down on one knee,” recalled Ms. Gangino, 35, a program coordinator at Rutgers University. The couple married in 2018 and had a baby in 2019. Now, with a toddler in tow, the Ganginos walk into Keyport’s downtown several times a week, participating in Yoga by the Bay, grabbing a meal at one of the many restaurants or going out on their paddle board or kayak, which they keep in a rented locker near the bay.

“I really love where we live. It’s such a hidden gem, and somebody really needed to shout it out,” said Ms. Gangino, who is doing just that on Instagram, where she shares news and photos from Keyport and neighboring areas with her nearly 8,000 followers.

Unlike other oceanfront areas in New Jersey, the coastline around Keyport has maintained a fairly low profile for years, as development has happened elsewhere. But 10 years ago, Hurricane Sandy changed that, causing destruction, but also providing the opportunity — and funding — to rebuild.

“Sandy catapulted the entire area,” said Collette J. Kennedy, 48, Keyport’s mayor, who moved to the borough just two weeks before the hurricane struck in October 2012. “People became aware of the many opportunities up and down the Bayshore.”

As a result of the hurricane, Keyport’s fishery was closed for five months, its new promenade was damaged, and many homes and businesses were destroyed, including a well-known waterfront restaurant and the Seaport Dock Museum, which lost thousands of artifacts of the borough’s 300-year history to the sea. But now, after 10 years of developers’ proposals and heated public debate, Keyport is anticipating four new housing projects, Ms. Kennedy said, from a 26-unit townhouse development to a 120-unit apartment complex next to Brown’s Point Marina.

“The change in Keyport that is happening right now has never happened before,” said Laura A. Piccinich, 55, a broker-owner with Re/Max Imperial, who moved to Keyport two years ago. “It’s a more traditional town, but it’s evolving, catering to younger millennials coming from Hoboken or New York City who aren’t looking for that McMansion house anymore. They want to be able to walk to town.”

That combination of tradition and progress is what attracted Melissa O’Connell to the borough. In 2019, after visiting many times from her home in Staten Island, she opened Keyport Funhouse, a cafe and clothing and gift boutique in downtown Keyport. In 2020, she moved to Aberdeen, just across the bay.

“It was time for a change, and I remembered Keyport as being very calming, like a step back in time,” said Ms. O’Connell, 55, who serves on the Keyport Bayfront Business Cooperative, planning many of the borough’s public events. “If you walk into any shop on a Saturday, nine times out of 10, the owner of that shop is going to be serving you. I really like that.”

With its mostly historic housing stock and seafaring roots still in evidence, Keyport feels more like a coastal town in New England than one in New Jersey. Several large marinas line the waterfront, alongside Keyport Fishery, which dates to 1936. Built 12 years ago, then repaired after Hurricane Sandy, the four-acre Keyport Waterfront Park and Promenade has a wide walking path and an active fishing pier with views of Lower Manhattan and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Nearby, there is a public boat launch and a beach.

The waterfront park runs parallel to Front Street, which joins with Main and Broad streets to make up Keyport’s bustling commercial district. The once-dominant antiques shops now share space with boutiques, cafes, hair salons, a vodka distillery, health and wellness stores, and taquerias.

And with a population of about 7,200 residents — 15.6 percent of whom identify as Hispanic, 5.3 percent as Black, 3.8 percent as Asian and 6.8 percent as two or more races — Keyport, the mayor said, is “the most diverse municipality along the Bayshore, and maybe anywhere in Monmouth County.”

Aside from a few small multiunit complexes and the new developments to come, the bulk of the borough’s housing consists of single-family or two-family houses built in the early to mid-20th century. Some grand and many modest Victorians are interspersed with Cape Cods, Craftsman bungalows and ranch houses, some of them upgraded.

“We’re not seeing a lot of teardowns,” said Lawrence Vecchio, 65, a broker-owner of the VRI Homes real estate agency, who was born in Keyport, left to raise a family, and returned in 2015, building a three-story house and office building on the waterfront. “There’s been a lot of acquisition and improvement, with people redoing the older homes, but keeping the original character.”

In the last five or six years, housing prices in Keyport have nearly doubled, said Mr. Vecchio: Houses that sold in the mid to upper $200,000s a few years ago are now going for $400,000 to 500,000.

And inventory is limited, with only seven houses listed for sale in mid August. The highest priced was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom raised ranch house listed at $649,900; the least expensive was a 648-square-foot, two-bedroom 1940 bungalow listed for $297,000.

During the first seven months this year, 57 homes sold for an average price of $430,664, according to the Monmouth County Multiple Listing Service; during the same period a year earlier, 54 homes sold for an average price of $346,255.

Much of the focus of Keyport’s activities is on the waterfront, where numerous public events are held; fishing boats are available for hire; and restaurants — including Burlew’s Seafood & Steak on Front Street and Old Glory Kitchen and Spirits, in a converted church on Broad Street — offer outdoor dining with water views. Across from Old Glory sits the vintage Broad Street Diner, made famous by a televised visit from the celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

The Keyport Bayfront Business Cooperative actively promotes the borough, with outdoor concerts, a weekly farmers’ market and Steel Drum Sundays in the Mini Park. In early August, the Fireman’s Fair draws people from throughout the area. In late October, the borough holds ghost tours, a witch walk and a psychic fair. And on Sept. 17, the business cooperative will sponsor the first I Love Keyport festival, with outdoor art, music and offerings from local restaurants.

There are two public schools in the Keyport School District: Keyport Central School, serving 586 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade; and Keyport High School, with 330 students in ninth through 12th grade from Keyport and neighboring Union Beach.

The average SAT scores for 2020-21 were 523 in reading and writing and 506 in math, compared with state averages of 557 and 560, according to the New Jersey Department of Education’s school performance report.

In 2021, the first 12 students graduated with associate’s degrees in addition to high school diplomas, thanks to a collaboration between the high school and Brookdale Community College. The high school also offers a program in global logistics, allowing students to earn college credits at Rutgers University.

Private schools in the area include Saint Mary School, a Catholic school for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, in Middletown; Oak Hill Academy, for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, in Lincroft; and Christian Brothers Academy, an all-boys Christian high school in Lincroft.

Driving to Midtown Manhattan from Keyport takes about an hour.

By train, the trip to Penn Station on New Jersey Transit from the nearby Aberdeen-Matawan station takes about 70 minutes and costs $14.25 one-way or $421 for a monthly pass. From Hazlet, N.J., the trip takes about the same amount of time and costs $15 one-way or $436 a month.

New Jersey Transit buses to Port Authority from Aberdeen take 83 minutes, with a change in Old Bridge, and cost $16.30 one-way or $399 for a monthly pass.

Another alternative is the Belford Ferry from Middletown, which takes 40 minutes to get to Lower Manhattan and 70 minutes to Midtown; the trip costs $21.50 one-way or $635 for a monthly pass.

Keyport’s appellation, the Pearl of the Bayshore, refers to the borough’s oystering history. In the 19th century, Raritan Bay was one of the world’s main sources of oysters, providing the majority of the employment in Keyport. But overfishing, pollution and the invasive drum fish killed off the oyster industry by the early 20th century.

In the early 2000s, NY/NJ Baykeeper, an environmental group, began an effort to reseed oysters in Keyport Harbor, a project that ended in 2010 when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection banned all shellfish research in Raritan Bay, deeming the water too contaminated.

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