As you follow the Chicago River northwest, past Lake View, the factories and skyscrapers that line its banks to the south give way to foliage so thick, it’s easy to think you’re in the country.
Industrial and office buildings are replaced with parks and single-family homes, some palatial by city standards, perched uphill from the water, their private (often illegal) docks jutting into the river. Increasingly, the view from the river also takes in condo buildings and townhomes, either recently completed or under construction.
The neighborhoods that the river traverses as it snakes through the Northwest Side of Chicago range from urban and eclectic to solidly middle class, verging on suburban. Each has its own character, but all have drawn growing numbers of homebuyers – and builders – across a waterway once treated as little more than an open sewer.
Today, however, the North Branch of the Chicago River is considered an amenity, and it has become a catalyst for development. Builders even highlight it in the names of Northwest Side projects such as North Branch Condominiums, RiverHouse and North River Court – something that would have been unthinkable not long ago. River tours are conducted in canoes, and bike paths follow the river’s snaking route.
Why has new-home development crossed the river, spreading from the bustling, dense neighborhoods to the east? Affordability has certainly been a growing factor as a real estate boom drove prices east of the river off the charts. Homes tend to get a little more affordable once you cross that bridge, and once they explore these neighborhoods, many homebuyers are impressed by quiet blocks, down-to-earth neighbors and a generally pleasant place to call home.
Traditionally an enclave of blue-collar ethnic families (Polish, Irish and others, both immigrant and American-born) the so-called “Nort’west Side” is characterized by three- flats and larger brick apartment buildings, as well as single-family homes with front porches and squared-off patches of grass. Bungalows are everywhere. Both personal and public green space is plentiful too, including myriad city parks and a massive Cook County Forest Preserve that starts at Foster Avenue and sprawls northwest into suburban Niles.
You won’t find the density of restaurants, retail and entertainment that you find in lakefront neighborhoods, to the east, but there is room to breath in this corner of the city. The neighborhoods that hug the river, places like Avondale, Irving Park, Albany Park, North Park and Sauganash, offer a less hectic pace. That’s one of the biggest reasons why people choose to live here, and why developers increasingly choose to build here.
The first stop on our river tour is Avondale, which stretches roughly from Diversey Parkway up to Addison Street, and from the river as far west as Pulaski Road. Once a Polish stronghold, the neighborhood has seen an influx of Latino residents in recent years.
Though it’s grown more diverse, Avondale, directly north of Logan Square, continues to boast its Polish roots in the very obvious form of business signs sporting the red and white of the Polish flag or that familiar hailing phrase, “zimne piwo,” which translates to “cold beer.”
Rebecca Mayton lives on the border of Avondale and Irving Park with her family in a 19th century single-family home at 3815 W. Addison St. To the east, she says, “it’s the crazy yuppie thing with their cute Frank Lloyd Wright houses,” and farther west, where she lives, the area gets a little grittier, with carefully restored homes often standing next to buildings badly in need of attention.
The river has spurred development in Avondale as it has throughout the Northwest Side. MC Development and Gannett Capital are building North River Court, a 46-unit condominium development at 2609 W. Belmont Ave., on the west bank of the river. Delivery is expected early next year. More than a quarter of the units in the five-story elevator building have been sold, with prices in early July ranging from the $280s to the $470s for homes with 1,030 to 2,110 square feet, two baths and two to three-plus bedrooms.
The riverfront development in Avondale is not surprising, but the row of condos that has sprung up along Elston Avenue might be, for anyone familiar with this gray, industrial stretch. With a ComEd facility, a wholesale hot dog producer and other industrial users to keep them company, infill condos have been selling for upwards of $300,000 here.
Other, larger projects such as Belmont Lofts, 4131 W. Belmont Ave.; Cornelia Court, 63 brick townhouses with copper bays at 3007 W. Cornelia Ave.; and Shoemaker Lofts, a 175-unit conversion at 3927 W. Belmont Ave. also have been introducing homeowners who had never heard of Avondale to the neighborhood.
Amenities are in short supply, though two of the city’s best known pubs for Irish music – The Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St. (technically in Irving Park), and Chief O’Neill’s, 3471 N. Elston Ave. – are close. And a Target store is located at 2939 W. Addison St. Perhaps perks like these, close proximity to the Kennedy Expressway and prices lower than those east of the river compensate for the sparser landscape.
Mayton, a senior at Lane Tech High School, hopes the neighborhood doesn’t transform overnight. The 17-year-old likes the variety both of her neighborhood and her school, where, she says, she enjoys being a racial minority.
“It’s very diverse,” she says. “It’s mostly Hispanic, then the next biggest group would be Asian – a lot of Vietnamese and Filipino kids – and then it’s 20 percent African-American and 20 percent white.”
Melissa Jordan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Northside College Prep, lives on the edge of Irving Park and Albany Park, at 4444 N. Monticello Ave. Irving Park stretches roughly from Addison Street to Montrose Avenue and from the river as far west as Cicero Avenue.
Jordan’s family owns a 1913 bungalow that has original woodwork, stained glass windows and a tree house out back. Jordan, a sophomore at Northside College Prep, likes the diversity of her neighborhood, and says it’s surprisingly convenient, though she’s not impressed by the retail offerings.
“My neighborhood has its fair share of $5 haircut places and taco stands that you probably would not want to visit, but other than that, it’s pretty cool,” Jordan says, rattling off the five buses that take her wherever she needs to travel: Montrose, Pulaski, Irving Park, Kimball and Laramie.
Architecturally, the neighborhood is historic and diverse, flush with beautifully restored (and some transitioning) Queen Annes, Victorians, Italianates and vintage farmhouses (it was once farmland), and of course, classic bungalows.
The river has long been a focal point here because south of Irving Park Road, it runs through California Park, and north of the river, Horner Park follows its banks. Sandwiched between these parks is the aptly named River Park North, a townhouse development at 2727 W. Irving Park Road. Two- and three-bedroom units with 2.5 to three-plus bathrooms range from the $490s to the $610s. Half of the 14 units in the current phase were sold by early July, and delivery is expected by Thanksgiving. The 90-unit first phase is sold out.
“This is a total townhome development in a serene park-like setting,” says Robert Sikkel, the @properties sales agent heading sales with Lynn Weekley. All of the homes back up to the river and have private yards and “grilling decks” off the kitchens, as well as rooftop decks.
Most development in Irving Park is small infill projects, though builder Paul Bertsche, of CA Development Inc., was an early neighborhood booster, building on formerly industrial sites with projects like Old Irving Pointe and The Residences of Old Irving Park. His current Village Homes, 15 new houses at 3902 N. Kilbourn Ave., have four or five bedrooms and are priced from the $720s.
Irving Park’s once-bustling Six Corners shopping district is a shadow of its former self, and restaurants in the neighborhood tend to be casual joints serving Italian, Chinese, Mexican or American. One notable exception is Arun’s, 4156 N. Kedzie Ave., considered by some to be the best Thai restaurant this side of Bangkok. And Irving Park’s main street, now replete with lush median planters, has long had what remains the touchstone for some new-home buyers – its own Starbucks, at 4365 W. Irving Park Road.
Albany Park, one of Chicago’s most eclectic neighborhoods, is bounded roughly by Montrose Avenue on the south, Pulaski Road on the west, and the Chicago River on the east and north. The river is scenic here, tree-lined and quiet, with small docks extending into its meandering waters, especially in the coveted Ravenswood Manor enclave. For this reason, and because it separates Albany Park from the restaurants, bars and boutiques of hot Lincoln Square, to the east, being close to, or on, the river is seen as a big plus.
Real Concord and Design Bridge, Ltd. highlight the river in their River House project, at 4835 N. Sacramento Ave., just northwest of the Manor. Fashioned in a gull-wing design, the building features 14,000 square feet of commercial space, along with 84 mainly two-bedroom, two-bathroom condos ranging from 1,093 to 1,400 square feet. Prices range from the $320s up to the $560s for a three-bedroom 2.5-bath unit. Construction is scheduled to begin in October with deliveries scheduled for fall of 2008.
“Looking south and west, the view of rooftops produces a fairly European-looking skyline,” says the Century 21 Sussex & Reilly agent heading sales, Christopher Moran. “There are no buildings of any consequential height, but just a few blocks south of us there’s Our Lady of Mercy Church, and it has a beautiful golden dome, and a couple of almost art deco- looking twin spires.”
As they walk west on Lawrence Avenue or south on Kedzie Avenue, River House residents will see a more colorful view. Latin American bakeries, Middle Eastern restaurants, Korean stores and European cafes line two of the most diverse commercial strips in Chicago. Though most of the Korean residents moved from Albany Park, their signs and shops still line Lawrence (a.k.a. Seoul Drive). Middle Eastern and Latin-owned businesses have been growing, and the residential base includes Bosnians, Somalis, Lebanese and immigrants from southeast Asia, among many others.
An Albany Parker can have a beer at an Assyrian bar, grab a kebob at a Lebanese restaurant, buy a gift at a Korean wholesaler and stop for Argentinian ice cream without leaving the neighborhood. He or she can also add a Starbucks Frappuccino to that list since a new Starbucks opened at 4558 N. Kedzie Ave. next door to a new McDonald’s several years ago. Not everyone’s happy with that sort of development, but the neighborhood appears no less diverse for the presence of these chains.
Claudia Anderson, a DePaul University professor who lives on the western fringe of Albany Park, moved north four years ago after deciding that Lincoln Park was too expensive and too crowded. She began researching the housing market in search of an easy commute by car and a nice bungalow, a combination she considered the “definition of living in Chicago.”
“Up here, your neighbors are actually outside working on their property, they’re not hiring someone to do the work,” says Anderson, 54. “So you might actually see your neighbor because they’re outside with a hoe in the dirt.”
If you follow the river north through Albany Park, it takes a sharp left turn around Carmen Avenue, branching off from the North Shore Channel. Now, you’re in North Park, bounded by the river and Foster Avenue on the south, the North Shore Channel on the east, Devon Avenue on the north and Cicero Avenue on the west.
A cluster of cemeteries sits at the center of the neighborhood, sandwiched between Peterson Park on the north and Gompers Park on the south. Next door to all this green are the campuses of Northeastern Illinois University and North Park University, edged on the east by the long swath of parkland bordering the North Shore Channel. This is one of the city’s greenest neighborhoods.
Which is not to say that many of its blocks are not dense and urban. The narrow streets around North Park University, for example, are lined with large vintage apartment buildings, some immaculate, others in need of serious work. There is a significant Latino population here, as well as a sprinkling of immigrants from all over the world, though the diversity is less obvious than in Albany Park, to the south.
The influence of North Park University, founded by the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church, and of Swedish Covenant Hospital, to the east, can still be seen along Foster Avenue. The street is home to several Swedish businesses, such as the restaurant Tre Kronor, 3258 W. Foster Ave., which draws big brunch crowds.
Olga Prevas, 46, rents an apartment in a two-flat that her father owns in North Park, at 6100 N. Meade St. He lives in the two-flat next door. “I’d want to live there anyway, even if my father didn’t own the building,” she says. “I live a block and a half from a golf course, and three blocks from the forest preserve. There was a deer in front of my house last fall.”
Prevas cannot think of a single drawback to her neighborhood. Except for that same old one: “We could use more restaurants, but at least Superdawg is nearby.”
Developers might not be constructing new restaurants, but small conversions and infill homes have been steadily built here. Grandview Condominiums, 3232 W. Peterson Ave., is one of the few large new-construction projects underway. The development has units ranging from studios to two-bedrooms, priced from the $170s to the $370s, with 630 to 1,149 square feet. The homes have nine-foot ceiling heights, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, granite countertops, ceramic tile and hardwood floors, and private balconies with treetop skyline views.
Sales began in November on the 60-unit project and by early July, executive broker Michael Martin, of Prudential Preferred Properties, had sold 10 units, with two more contracts pending.
“We’re seeing young buyers, first-time buyers, investors, and some empty-nesters,” he says. “You can go a little bit lower in price when you go west of the river. And the development growth was so robust east of the river that people started considering building condos where they normally would not have, west of the river.”
Sauganash, which runs roughly from Bryn Mawr Avenue to Devon Avenue, and from Pulaski Road to Cicero Avenue, has been coveted and stable for years, home to judges, politicians, media types and others who want a city address but a lifestyle that might be called suburban. New construction is rare here, but land does open up now and again for development.
A cardiovascular perfusionist at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center in Ukrainian Village, Mike Quinlan and his wife moved to Sauganash with their three young children in 1996. “It’s a great neighborhood,” Quinlan says. “People think it’s not in the city, but it’s kind of like a suburb within the city. There are parts of Sauganash that look like they could be in River Forest. It’s a little planned, like…‘Pleasantville’ – that’s what the kids call it.”
Even the schools mirror the “Pleasantville” suburb experience in a way – good options everywhere you look. From Queen of All Saints Catholic school to the public Sauganash Elementary School, all earn high marks.
Throwing the Northwest Side affordability ratio out of whack, Sauganash tends to be on the pricier side – the kind of place young families plan to live someday, once they get their feet beneath them.
“I never thought we’d be able to afford it,” says Quinlan, 45. “I was looking farther up, in Edison Park, and some friends who lived in Sauganash said, ‘Run through the neighborhood, see what you can see.’ We went through on a Sunday, found our house and had a contract on Wednesday.”
They found an English bungalow (which sits on the same footprint as a typical Chicago bungalow but has a steeper, Tudor-style roof) in need of some work. That was not a problem for Quinlan, who knows his way around a tool kit. Visitors to his renovated home who aren’t familiar with Sauganash often are amazed by the area. “They’re like, ‘Whoa, when did they drop this place in here?’” Quinlan says.
As in many suburbs, the major issue in Sauganash of late has been tear-downs: giant, oversized brick castles being wedged into city lots. Quinlan sees it as a positive – higher property values for everyone – but he admits that many of his neighbors don’t agree.
Quinlan does have one complaint about Sauganash, the one echoed all across the Northwest Side: no great restaurants to walk to, though he says the level of convenience is changing, driven in part by the new Whole Foods Market at Cicero and Peterson avenues. “At first they had to sell it to the neighborhood, but once people went there, they started to love the place,” Quinlan says.
There are even condos going up near the Whole Foods, Quinlan says. Pretty soon this place might actually look like the city. But, of course, there would still be plenty of room for everyone to breathe. It’s the Northwest Side, after all.