Edgewater builds on winners as business plays catch-up to housing

At first, it’s a little hard to square Bek Allen’s vision of Edgewater as the promised land with the view of Granville out the coffee shop window, but as she makes her case, it becomes harder and harder to disagree.

“It’s quite a unique little community,” says Allen, the 24-year-old co-founder of the nonprofit Edgewater Art Group. She’s wearing an outfit that might seem stale on one of the old men shuffling down Granville – tweed cap, black horn-rimmed glasses, baggy trousers – but is stylish on her, juxtaposed with the tattoo of an EKG graph that covers most of her left forearm. The South Bend native moved to Chicago six years ago and lived in a variety of neighborhoods before settling on Edgewater, where she’s been for two years.

Coffee at Metropolis“I love the neighborhood,” she says. “I’ve searched for a neighborhood like this. You have the great dive bar on the corner, the grocery store, the coffee shop down the street…”

In short, Edgewater, bounded roughly by Foster, Devon, the lake and Ravenswood, has all of the ingredients for a great urban community. Allen might also have mentioned beautiful and wildly varied architecture (from palatial single-families in Lakewood-Balmoral to lakefront highrises along Sheridan Road); topnotch public transportation; some of the best beachfront in the city; a dense, diverse population; the influence of Loyola University; and prices that while rising rapidly are still comparatively affordable for lakefront property on the North Side.

Belle Shore ApartmentsSitting in Metropolis, a coffee shop that’s been open a little more than a year, at 1039 W. Granville, those assets appear to have coalesced nicely. The space is large and bright: pale yellow walls and green concrete floors with a small outdoor café and a street-friendly façade that’s nearly all glass. At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, it’s hard to find a seat here, and on weekends, it’s often impossible. The crowd is dominated by students from Loyola, which has residences just blocks away, but there are also plenty of neighborhood regulars from all walks of life.

A schedule near the door promotes upcoming Metropolis events – music, art, a writing group – and today, Allen is signing up artists for an upcoming art show, “Corners in Edgewater,” that will feature everything from performance art to photography by Edgewater artists at the Gerber / Hart Library and the local Chicago Public Library branch.

“Things have really improved here, especially since (Metropolis) opened,” Allen says. “It’s brought a real sense of community. They’ve really opened their doors to arts, music, neighborhood groups. This place is the staple of what this neighborhood wants to be.”

The same might be said of Left of Center bookstore, a shop with a broader selection than its name suggests next door to Metropolis, or the Thai Grill, a restaurant across the street. But these businesses are relatively new, and the rest of Granville, like many commercial districts in Edgewater, lags far behind.

Despite a population that according to the 2000 U.S. census stood at 62,200 – making Edgewater twice as dense as Lincoln Park – and despite its many advantages, key commercial arteries are dominated by dollar stores, currency exchanges, auto repair shops and liquor retailers. Around 83 percent of Edgewater residents leave the neighborhood to buy clothes, and around three-fourths shop elsewhere for shoes, books and home furnishings, according to a study by Edgewater Development Corporation.

Foster Avenue BeachSeveral of the business districts that need help are in what would seem to be ideal locations, between the dense corridor of highrises along Sheridan Road and busy Broadway, with Edgewater’s bustling el stations in between.

The neighborhood’s most successful business district, Andersonville, is centered on a thriving strip of Clark Street, from about Ainslee to Victoria, in a part of Edgewater that’s actually less dense, comprised mainly of single-family homes and smaller apartment buildings on quiet leafy streets.

In recent years, Andersonville has moved beyond its Swedish roots and is lined with popular shops and restaurants and many gay-owned businesses. New places such as Jin Ju and Sushi Luxe are doing brisk business alongside the more established Hop Leaf and Calo, which have undertaken major renovations and gone upscale.

It’s hard to imagine a more pedestrian-friendly strip than the business district in Andersonville, but streets like Granville, Broadway and Devon tell a different story. Storefronts are dated or vacant, and often host businesses that don’t draw foot traffic.

The Hop LeafResidential development has grown – some concerned about affordability would say too much – throughout Edgewater, and there are signs that commercial development is poised to catch up, or at least narrow the gap. Bryn Mawr often is cited as a model of how residential and commercial development can be coordinated to improve the neighborhood without displacing half its residents. Residents and business owners are building on Bryn Mawr’s success, and streets like Granville, Broadway and Devon are taking their first steps in the same direction as Edgewater attempts to revive its commercial base.

Residential boom

Vanessa Notman, a 21-year-old student at Columbia College, is getting “kicked out” of her Edgewater apartment. The building is being converted to condominiums, part of a trend that’s rampant on Edgewater’s side streets.

“The owner has a bunch of buildings here, and he’s turning them all into condos,” says Notman, who is glued to her laptop at Metropolis, where she sometimes comes to study. “I’ve noticed a lot of buildings being redone, and people are buying instead of renting.”

And as the demand for condos in Edgewater has grown, fed by low interest rates and a citywide real estate boom, prices have soared. The median condo in Edgewater last year sold for $194,850, up 71 percent over the last five years, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors. The median single-family home was $560,000, up 27 percent in just one year.

But even with that sort of appreciation, Edgewater is more affordable than other lakefront neighborhoods. The median condo price in Lakeview last year was $317,000, nearly 63 percent higher than in Edgewater, and in Uptown, immediately south of the neighborhood, it was $250,000, more than 28 percent higher.

The discount for crossing north of Foster is significant, and that has heated the market for condo conversions, mostly in vintage brick buildings with anywhere from three to several dozen units. One of the only recent highrise conversions is the current 6030 N. Sheridan development, a 22-story tower with lake views. At press time, fewer than 25 of the building’s 262 units, all one-bedrooms priced from the $150s to the $210s, remained for sale.

One-year-old Mia on a walk with Mom“People always think, ‘Oh, five or six years ago, I could have bought that condo for $60,000, and now it’s $150,000,” says Arsiak Raffaelli, the Sussex and Reilly sales agent selling 6030 N. Sheridan. “But in five years, they’ll be saying, they could have bought it for $150,000, and now it’s $250,000.”

Conversions have occurred throughout the neighborhood, from the dense corridor of highrises on Sheridan Road, to the loft buildings along Ravenswood in “West Andersonville” to the mid-sized vintage brick flats of Edgewater Glen. Lately, though, demand also has spurred a number of new construction projects in a neighborhood with little room for building.

At press time, CA Development had just one unit left at Edgewater Square, 27 new single-family homes built on former hospital land at Ashland and Rosehill. Catalpa Gardens is a brand new development of 126 condominiums with a sales office at 5539 N. Broadway, and 5430 N. Sheridan is a new eight-story condo building with 48 units scheduled to break ground in May, according to Tony Marchese, of Sudler, the marketing agent.

“There is not much space in Edgewater for building,” says Marion Kennedy Volini, of Lakefront Group Realty, which is selling Atelier, a six-story condo building underway at the corner of Bryn Mawr and Sheridan, with units priced from the $330s to the $780s. “We don’t favor tearing down buildings as a rule; it’s quite a historic-minded community.”

Success story

That history is nowhere more evident than on the stretch of Bryn Mawr where Lakefront Group has its office. The historic area between the el tracks and Sheridan has been refurbished with new streetscaping and period lighting. Once more dilapidated than some of Edgewater’s other challenged commercial strips, this stretch of Bryn Mawr is now home to a Starbucks; Francesca’s Bryn Mawr, an upscale Italian restaurant; a new Bank One; a bicycle shop; and other street-friendly businesses. Nookie’s, the popular Chicago diner, is opening a new restaurant here, and at the end of the block is Atelier, the new condo building marketed by Lakefront Group.

Los Manos GalleryHistoric architecture on Bryn Mawr includes Manor House, the beautiful Tudor Revival building that’s now condos, at 1021 W. Bryn Mawr, and once served as the home of the British Consul; and the Belle Shore Apartments, which features a stunning Art Deco façade of green terra cotta with an Egyptian frieze above the ground-level storefronts. Pedestrians crossing east of the el tracks on Bryn Mawr find themselves in a charming pocket where new businesses, historic architecture and a new streetscape create a distinct identity.

The changes on Bryn Mawr might seem sudden to outsiders, says Doug Fraser, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council, but in fact, they are the result of a process that’s gone on for decades.

“There’s been a lot of pressure for a lot of time working on those areas that are finally turning around,” Fraser says. “Part of it is that new condos have gone up and when people own, they have a bigger stake in changing their block.”

Breakfast at SveaThe Edgewater Community Council has spent years working to clean up blocks such as Winthrop and Kenmore, which have had serious problems with gangs and drugs and were once notorious as “arson alley.” These blocks, which felt dangerous and intimidating even five or six years ago, are increasingly home to new condos, and many of the worst landlords have been removed. Residents say the improvements on these side streets and increased safety were a big factor in creating the space for new businesses to open on Bryn Mawr.

Of course, one side effect of “improvements” can be displacement and rising rents. Fraser says the demand for affordable housing in Edgewater continues to outstrip the supply, as it does in many city neighborhoods, and he quotes the sobering statistic that more than two-thirds of the people who live in Edgewater now could not afford to move in given current prices.

But, he points out, Edgewater does have a stock of subsidized housing that will provide at least some built-in affordability as change occurs, and he says management can be replaced at problem buildings without necessarily sacrificing affordability.

“The Belle Shore and the Bryn Mawr were two very dangerous slum buildings (on Bryn Mawr) that were turned over to responsible developers who created affordable housing with an upscale restaurant and a Starbucks downstairs,” Fraser says. “You wouldn’t know that these are affordable buildings as you go by. It’s a function of management.”

Building on Bryn Mawr

Riley gets groomed at Famous Fido'sDarren McGraw is relaxing with a newspaper at Metropolis after teaching a yoga class at Yoga Now, 5852 N. Broadway. He uses lukewarm adjectives like “decent” to describe the street on which he works, but he thinks Broadway has potential.

“It’s definitely in the beginning stages,” says McGraw, 33. “It would be nice if Broadway could capture some of what’s happening on Bryn Mawr. It would be nice if some of the Bryn Mawr building renovation spread out, which is what happened in the West Loop.”

McGraw isn’t the only one entertaining such notions. Business owners and residents say they’d like to follow Bryn Mawr’s lead on Granville, Devon, Thorndale and Broadway as well as on the bland stretch of Clark north of Andersonville.

Granville already seems much improved with the simple presence of Metropolis and Left of Center, and a planned project at the opposite end of the strip, at Granville and Broadway, has the potential to be a major catalyst. Access Realty Group is planning a new 12-story mixed-use development on the prominent corner that will have 30,000 square feet of retail space, 281 parking spots and 162 condominiums – 10 percent of them affordable.

Loyola University spent years assembling the land for the development and is proving an important force for change on both Granville and Devon.

“Loyola doesn’t own property on Granville, but we consider it our southern border,” says Jennifer Clark, Loyola’s director of community relations. “We recognize that with so many students living south (of Devon) and using the Granville el station, this is an important street. The residential has changed dramatically, but retail continues to flounder in small spaces with high turnover. In a precinct that has been voted dry, a couple of liquor stores are two of the longest-standing businesses we have. But enough has changed and enough students have moved south to recognize that Granville could be a really exciting corridor.”

Although many Chicagoans think of Loyola as located in Rogers Park (on your right as you round the bend heading north on Sheridan), half the campus is south of Devon, in Edgewater. More students – 60 percent once a new residence hall is completed this summer – live in Edgewater, and more use the Granville el station than the Loyola stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line.

Lakewood-BalmoralLoyola was instrumental in getting the CTA to make repairs at the Granville station, where the retail spaces suffered severe leaks, and the school is lobbying the Chicago Police Department to open a Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) office in one of those vacant stores.

“The street is much better, but there’s still petty crime, the 5 a.m. prostitute or drug deal,” Clark says. “It’s random.”

Safety is still a very real concern among Edgewater residents. Nearly everyone seems to agree that overall, the neighborhood is safer – 92 percent said they felt safe in a recent Edgewater Development Corporation survey – but interestingly, the same people who say they feel safe, also acknowledge that they probably shouldn’t.

“I work in Evanston, and I’ll come home late, at 4 a.m., because I don’t have any other option, and I feel safe, safer than I probably should,” says Vanessa Notman, the 21-year-old Columbia student. “I have friends who have been mugged at gunpoint or beaten up.”

“It’s really weird to me when crime does happen here because I feel safe,” says Bek Allen, of Edgewater Art Group. “I don’t feel scared walking down the street, but when that stuff happens, I think maybe I should.”

A safer street was key to revitalizing Bryn Mawr, and Granville, where a restaurant reportedly closed recently because of safety concerns, will face the same challenge. Devon, Broadway and North Clark also have their own unique obstacles.

The new condo building AtelierLike Bryn Mawr, Devon has the advantage of being part of a tax-increment financing district, and much of the infrastructure for a revitalized commercial district already is in place, with new lighting, sidewalks and planters. These public improvements, however, stand in marked contrast to the second-rate and vacant storefronts that populate parts of the street.

Neighborhood watchers hope that new design guidelines for the Devon-Sheridan TIF by Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates will jumpstart what has been a long process. Several funeral homes present a lingering challenge. While they are successful businesses providing needed services, they also have parking lots that constitute a big gap on the street that doesn’t encourage foot traffic.

Clark Street north of Andersonville and Broadway, have other issues to overcome. Both are extremely wide thoroughfares with heavy traffic and present big barriers to pedestrians. Neither has much of an identity and on Broadway a preponderance of auto repair and sales businesses show forbidding garage doors and curb cuts to the street.

But the number of restaurants, old and new, is starting to grow on Broadway, where wide sidewalks could be a habitat for outdoor cafes if the heavy traffic can be kept at bay. A number of African businesses, such as Ras Daschen, Abyssinia Market and Ethiopian Diamond have been joined by trendier arrivals with names like South and Sizzle.

Adam Burke, executive director of Edgewater Development Corporation, says that what’s good for one commercial district is not necessarily good for another, and groups like his need to consider the unique needs and assets of each as they try to improve the entire neighborhood.

“In Andersonville, people have indicated that they don’t want to be taken over by national chains, so how can we protect independent local businesses?” Burke says. “Broadway is a street in transition, so there’s much more interest in it now, and a lot of that interest is from national retailers. We’re doing a study this year on Clark Street, from Ainslee to Devon with the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Land Institute to see what’s the niche for North Clark Street that can develop in synergy with Andersonville. We don’t want to kill one district because the other is successful.”

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