Fort Lee, NJ: More Than Scandal Puts It on the Map

George Washington Bridge viewed from Fort Lee

By Laura Vecsey

For millions of commuters and drivers who cross the George Washington Bridge every year -- or who try and cross it -- Fort Lee, N.J. can appear little more than an exit sign on the world's busiest bridge that links New York City to the rest of the country.

Fred Sokolich
Fred Sokolich

Wrong, says Fred Sokolich (left), a real estate broker in Fort Lee and brother of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. "Anyone who says it's just an exit off the bridge is mistaken. Fort Lee is a thriving metropolis. It has something for everyone. High-rises, condos, garden apartments, single-family homes,'' Sokolich said.

"We're not an exit off the bridge. They're building two of the biggest buildings in Bergen County in Fort Lee. This is a thriving bedroom community for people who work in downtown Manhattan but want to live in a place with good schools, places to walk and eat. We have a couple of main arteries that will get you downtown in 30 or 40 minutes,'' Sokolich said. (Pictured at top: A view of George Washington Bridge from a Fort Lee apartment, which is for sale for $565,000.)

This week, Fred's younger brother became a media star. The 50-year-old Fort Lee mayor catapulted into the national spotlight for staunch defense of Fort Lee in the aftermath of a stunning scandal that has rocked the administration of Gov. Chris Christie. Christie's top aides deliberately ordered lane closures on the GW Bridge for reasons that are not yet known, except to cause Fort Lee pain.

On Thursday, Christie held a marathon press conference, professing his embarrassment and sadness over revelations. However, the so-called apology has done little among Fort Lee residents to quell the anger and disgust over the dangerous game of political retribution.

"It's incredible. That's not good for the town,'' Fred Sokolich said Friday from his Fort Lee real estate office.

50 Million Vehicles Passed Over GW Bridge in 2012: For 70 years, little Fort Lee has endured the pitfalls of being the first and last exit in New Jersey for millions of vehicles that make the George Washington Bridge the busiest span in the world.

Fort Lee, NJ
Fort Lee, NJ

Fort Lee homes for sale, just across the GW Bridge

In 2012 alone, 50 million vehicles (49,110,921) passed by little Fort Lee over the GW Bridge en route to New York City, with just as many passing Fort Lee heading west away from New York. Now Fort Lee has become a buzzword and an epicenter for political sensationalism, thanks to revelations about a four-day, man-made traffic jam ordered by Christie's top staffers last September.

The scandal has thrust the 2.5-square-mile city into the national spotlight, in large part because "Bridgegate" could damage Christie's presumed fast track to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The U.S. Senate and Department of Justice, among others, are signaling criminal investigations into the lane closures. On Friday, New Jersey legislators released hundreds of documents pertaining to the lane closure scandal.

"It's not something we wished for,'' Fort Lee cultural affairs officer Tom Meyers said Friday. "That the bridge would be used as a political weapon is something we're not thrilled about, but I think our mayor has handled it beautifully, especially coming out and saying that (some of the key actors in the scandal) deserve a good (butt) kicking,'' Meyers said.

Sokolich is a part-time mayor, but after he was orphaned at age 13, he said he was "raised" by Fort Lee and its community of 35,000 people. He later played basketball at Rutgers and, after becoming an attorney, founded Sokolich & Macri, where he specializes in banking law and commercial and real estate.

Fort Lee's Real Estate Outlook: Fort Lee has seen its real estate market swing sharply back upwards since the 2008 economic crisis. Fort Lee's median home value is currently $496,100, going up 13.4 percent over the past year. Zillow predicts values will rise 4.5 percent within the next year.

Fred Sokolich, who said his firm is the top-ranked rental agency on the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, said he and his brother share an office building and do a lot of real estate work together. The city continues to grow.

The mayor has spearheaded development projects that he says will spur growth in what was a "tired" downtown Fort Lee. The centerpiece of Mayor Sokolich's plans involves a one million square foot commercial development site at the former Hudson Light property. He called the $1 billion development project a key to Fort Lee's continuing renaissance.

Birthplace of Film Industry: Fort Lee did not need to George Washington Bridge to put itself on the map. Situated on the Palisades cliffs overlooking the Hudson River and New York City, Fort Lee was where George Washington and his troops camped while trying to defend Manhattan during the Revolutionary War.

And before the motion picture industry headed west and built its studio lots out in Hollywood, Fort Lee was the birthplace of the film industry back in the early 1900's. The term "cliffhanger" used to describe a movie filled with suspense, danger, and seat-of-your pants thrills comes directly from Fort Lee, thanks to the early films done on the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.

"The movies came to Fort Lee when pioneer companies started to look for new filming locations. In 1907, it was found that the Palisades near Fort Lee and Coytesville could be used for 'Wild West' scenes and other outdoor scenes. Rambo's Hotel on First Street was used as a place to dress as well as for the exterior of a Western saloon,'' the Fort Lee Film Commission said.

Now, however, with Chris Christie battling for his political future, Fort Lee has become a key actor in the drama. In the case of Fort Lee vs. Christie's team of political and gubernatorial staffers, it's a lot like David vs. Goliath. Only this time, the little city by the Hudson has come out on top.

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