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Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: An Urban Oasis at the Foot of the Adirondacks

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For more than 30 years, Gregory and Loretta Smith were regular visitors to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., traveling from their home in Rockland County on weekends and summer holidays to attend the horse races and enjoy the pace of life in this small city about three hours north of Manhattan. Once they had both retired — he from his job as a deputy warden at Rikers Island in 2004, and she from her media technology job in New York City earlier this year — they were finally able to turn their favorite getaway into a more permanent home.

“We started to discuss, ‘Where do we want to put our roots down?’” Ms. Smith, 61, recalled. “And I said, ‘I want to live here. It has everything we want: a small walkable city with a good social environment, and access to nature. Just an overall phenomenal quality of life.’” That’s how the couple came to buy a 1,219-square-foot, two-bedroom ranch house on 0.23 acres for $399,000 in April.

This summer, Mr. Smith, 70, has been planting a garden, while Ms. Smith has been biking to the Oklahoma Training Track to watch the horses practice at sunrise. In the evenings, they bicycle over to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to grab a spot on the grass and listen to live music. And with their steady flow of weekend visitors, they are often trackside, where Ms. Smith said she places her bets based on the horses’ names or the color of their coats.

“I don’t bet big,” she said. “I go to see the horses and to people watch.”

Built in 1863, the world-renowned Saratoga Race Course is a big draw, especially during the 40-day racing season every summer, when Saratoga Springs turns into a pastel-bedecked holiday playground. But for the city’s 28,000 or so year-round residents — and those who have begun to discover this sophisticated urban oasis in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains — the appeal is broader, and lasts throughout the year.

“There’s always something going on,” said Tammy Loya, 61, an agent with Howard Hanna Real Estate Services and a lifelong resident of the area. “If you like a lot of action, summer is the time to be here. In the fall, you have all the colors and the balloon festival. In winter, there’s the Chowderfest and the contra dance festival. And in the spring, it starts all over again.”

Elizabeth Sobol, 64, is another Saratoga Springs convert, although it took some convincing for her to move to this seemingly remote place up north.

For decades, Ms. Sobol worked as a music executive, splitting her time between New York City and Miami. When she was on the cusp of retiring as chief executive of Universal Music Classics in 2016, she was approached by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to become its new president and chief executive.

Her first impression of Saratoga Springs, while staying at the Holiday Inn, was lukewarm. Then she took a walk into town, where she found two independent bookstores, music venues and eclectic restaurants. She took the job. Since then, she has expanded the performing arts center’s programs, bought a small colonial house for $600,000 with her husband, Jorge Gomez, a jazz musician, and become one of the city’s most enthusiastic boosters.

“If someone asked me to sketch an ideal city to live in, it would look like this,” she said. “The level of arts is world class, and it’s right in your backyard. We’re avid hikers, and there’s so much green space. There are terrific restaurants, and you can walk everywhere. I have everything I need here, and it’s so much more accessible.”

The city of Saratoga Springs covers 29.1 square miles in Saratoga County, stretching from Saratoga Lake at its eastern border to the town of Milton and the village of Ballston Spa on the west, with Route 9 and Interstate 87, or the Adirondack Northway, bisecting the city from north to south. Much of the outlying area is wooded, with scattered residential developments; waterfront houses along Saratoga Lake and Lake Lonely; and the Yaddo artists’ retreat, just west of Interstate 87. But most of the residential neighborhoods radiate out from the center of the city, where Broadway serves as the commercial heart.

Many of the city’s grand, historic homes are found on the what is known as the east side, between downtown and the racetrack. The west side, around the campus of Skidmore College, is another desirable area.

In the past decade, luxury mid-rise condominiums have gone up near Broadway, along Railroad Place and, more recently, Washington Street. Farther west is the Beekman Street Arts District, with shops and houses that exude a New Orleans vibe.

Sheila Sperling, a relocation specialist with Julie & Co. Realty, said Saratoga Springs has been seeing growing interest from New York City residents since the pandemic began.

“We have all these folks from New York City saying, ‘This place is awesome,’” said Ms. Sperling, 51, who grew up in Saratoga Springs and whose parents run the historic Saratoga Arms Hotel on Broadway. “Everyone coming from the city wants to live close to downtown. They don’t want to give up city life, and want to be able to walk to everything.”

That was the goal for Mark Biggs and Nicole Navratil, who searched for two years for a house within walking distance of downtown. On Labor Day, just in time for their son to start first grade in Saratoga Springs, the family of four moved into a four-bedroom 1930s Craftsman bungalow eight blocks from Broadway, which they bought this summer for $635,000.

“The timing seemed right,” said Ms. Navratil, 45, a consultant for social change start-ups. “I adore New York City, but I’m curious to see what it will be like to live in an idyllic microcosm. And if it doesn’t work out, the city will always be there.”

Prices have increased significantly during the past couple of years, while inventory has declined, according to information from the Greater Capital Association of Realtors.

The average price of the 230 homes that sold between January and Sept. 5 of this year was $731,935; during the same period in 2022, 330 homes sold for an average of $621,895.

The price increase is even more pronounced in the city’s central core, where 32 homes sold for an average of $882,350 through early September of this year, up from $732,785 for the 79 homes sold during the same period in 2022. Take, for example, the four-bedroom Tudor house adjacent to the Oklahoma Training Track that celebrity chef Bobby Flay bought for $1.7 million in 2021: After a major renovation, the house is back on the market for $3.295 million.

As of early September, there were 87 properties for sale in Saratoga Springs — 72 single-family homes, 13 condominiums and two townhomes. The most expensive was a 25,000-square-foot house on nearly an acre on North Broadway, listed for $12 million (but slated to go to auction on Sept. 8). The least expensive was an 1882 four-bedroom fixer-upper in the Beekman Street Arts District, listed for $299,000. Condominiums in the new six-story Residences at the Adelphi Hotel range from $775,000 for a studio to $2.45 million for a three-bedroom apartment.

While horse racing sets the tone here, there are plenty of cultural, sporting and social outlets to choose from.

In Saratoga Spa State Park, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s amphitheater and sloping lawn draw crowds for live performances by popular bands, as well as the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra, both of which have summer residencies here. The 2,379-acre state park also contains the historic Gideon Putnam hotel, a mineral bath spa, a 27-hole public golf course, swimming pools and numerous hiking trails that wind past springs, geysers and spigots where one can sample the mineral waters.

The city has a second golf course, and the 4.5-mile-long Saratoga Lake is surrounded by marinas, boat launch sites, fishing piers and waterfront restaurants.

More live music can be heard downtown at Caffe Lena, which claims to be the oldest folk-music coffeehouse in the country (a young Bob Dylan performed there in 1961).

Saratoga Springs’s six elementary schools enroll from 370 to 750 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. Maple Avenue Middle School enrolls 1,420 students in sixth through eighth grade, and Saratoga Springs High School has about 1,900 students in ninth through 12th grade.

The high school offers 17 Advanced Placement courses, and about 92 percent of students who take the A.P. exams pass. It also has a wide variety of clubs, including the Fiddle Club and others focusing on robotics and women’s empowerment.

In the 2020-21 school year, the average SAT scores were 630 on reading and writing and 630 on math, compared with state averages of 526 and 531.

Private school options in the area include St. Clement’s Regional Catholic School in Saratoga Springs, for students in prekindergarten through fifth grade; Emma Willard School, a girls’ high school in Troy; and the Albany Academies, in Albany, for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

Saratoga Springs is about 190 miles north of New York City. Amtrak offers two trains daily each way between Saratoga Springs and Penn Station in Manhattan; the trip takes about three hours and 45 minutes and costs $59 one way. Bus service is available through Greyhound and Trailways; the trip takes four to five hours and costs $56 to $66 each way.

Thousands of years ago, Native Americans discovered the healing powers of the area’s plentiful mineral springs — a resource that was later capitalized on by European settlers, followed by hotel owners and then the state. The first two public bathhouses opened in the early 1900s. With a push from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio and believed in hydrotherapy, two more bathhouses were built in 1935 under the Works Progress Administration. By the 1940s, these bathhouses were providing 200,000 baths annually, including for many returning World War II soldiers. Today, at the one remaining original bathhouse, the Roosevelt Baths & Spa, visitors can soak in deep tubs filled with mineral water and have massages and facials.

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