FOR YEARS, THE VISTA JUST BEYOND THE “Welcome to Metuchen” sign at the south end of town was, well, less than welcoming. Visitors crossing from Edison Township in New Jersey into the century-old borough were greeted by a wild stretch of overgrown brush and an abandoned shack used seasonally for Christmas tree sales. Three houses on the 2.64-acre site had been used as rental properties over the years, but had fallen into disrepair.
Jim and Don La Porta, brothers whose namesake company has been building in the area for 26 years, thought the landowner (an “old timer”) would never sell. That is, until they overheard him discussing just such a plan in the surveyor's office. “Eleven other builders had already submitted bids, but he told us he'd rather sell to the local guys if we matched their price,” says Jim La Porta. “I told him I could get approvals in one year, and I did.”
Demolition notwithstanding, the parcel, which sidled up to Metuchen's Main Street, came with other challenges. It hugged a high-traffic cut-through road marked by a progression of old-growth sycamores.
The initial site plan calling for 11 new homes with front-loaded garages would have required significant tree removal and would have created potentially hazardous conditions for homeowners attempting to back their cars out onto the busy commuter road. Working with the town planner, La Porta Builders devised an alternate site plan in which 10 of the 11 lots (all but one corner lot) are alley-loaded via a lane that snakes its way between homes. Eight of the homes are now built. When the project is completed, the town will assume municipal ownership of the alley, including responsibility for garbage collection and snow removal.
Architecturally, only modern materials such as Wolverine vinyl siding, cultured stone chimneys, vinyl shakes, Fypon trim, and Andersen windows confirm the true age of the new residences at Metuchen Estates. They otherwise honor the prevailing 1920s Dutch colonial, four-square, and Victorian styling of other homes around town. “We tried to make them look like older, remodeled homes,” says architect James Wentling.
This nod to posterity—and the fact that Metuchen is just 40 minutes from Manhattan by train—made the homes irresistible to buyers. For the builders, having the benefit of public trust going into the project was an incalculable asset. “Infill is our main thing,” says Jim La Porta. “Middlesex County is densely populated, so there's not much vacant land to be found. We'd have to go an hour away from where we live to do bigger land development, but we don't want to do that.”
Better to do business where everybody knows your name. “Jim is a brand in this town,” says homeowner Bob Goldy, who approached La Porta at a little league game and snapped up the model at the corner of Main Street and Hickory Street before it was finished. “I had seen their other houses around town, so I knew what I was getting.”
Project: Metuchen Estates, Metuchen, N.J.; Unit size: 3,500 square feet; Lot size: 9,920 square feet (average); Site: 11 homes on 2.64 acres; Sale price: $800,000 to $850,000; Builder/Developer: La Porta Builders, Metuchen; Architect: James Wentling Architect, Philadelphia