When is a townhouse a townhome?


River BendSeems like a perfectly good word, but at some point it must have struck the ears of Realtors as a little too cold and antiseptic. Brokers banished it in favor of “townhome,” which your spell check will tell you isn’t a word at all (already I’m feeling guilty about that corrective red squiggle that pops up as I type it).

But why let that get in the way of the warm, fuzzy feelings that can lead to sales?

Even “townhome,” however, suffers from the taint of second-best, an implication that its buyers would rather have a single-family home if only they could afford one. It was that connotation that led to the kind of brilliant oxymoron for which the real estate industry has unsurpassed talent: “attached single-family home.”

Never mind that single-family homes are by definition detached. This is a euphemistic keeper, one that ranks with “fresh-frozen” and “real buttery taste” in the paradoxical-marketing hall of fame.

But what was wrong with “townhouse” to begin with?

As a hybrid of a traditional condo and a detached single-family home, the distinctly urban form of housing earned a bad rap on a number of fronts. Townhouses generally were designed as entry-level housing. Builders in Chicago cut endless corners in designing and constructing townhouses, and crammed as many units as possible onto available land to keep costs down.

The North Side is peppered with the results of this penny pinching – ugly, dense buildings with front-loaded garages, blank end-walls and styles that range from Nouveau Eastern Block to Walt Disney Victorian.

In the moneyed ’80s, MCL Development introduced a different kind of product when it began building townhouses for well-heeled buyers. While the architecture for developments such as the Pointe at Lincoln Park and MCL’s Central Station projects was derivative, the townhouses were large, with high-end finishes and quality materials, such as brick, limestone and hardwood.

The bulk of townhouse developments continued to be of low quality, but as the development boom of the late ’90s took hold, the city stepped in to curb projects that had become a blight in neighborhoods like East Village. New laws required lower density and more green space and prohibited some of the worst design features, such as garage doors that faced the street.

They also have inadvertently discouraged townhouse building, according to developers, by raising their costs. During the first quarter of 2004, housing analysts Appraisal Research Counselors reported only 142 unsold townhouse units in the downtown market.

“The townhouse market is unlike the condo market,” said Alan Lev, of Belgravia Group, whose Chelsea Townhomes were the only new townhouse development to open downtown during the first quarter. “Not many townhomes get built in the city, and it’s historically been like that. It’s hard to find sites where they work.”

Why did they work at 1042 W. Monroe, in the West Loop, the site of the Chelsea Townhomes?

Kilbourn Court“We always take a look at what we think is marketable in a particular area as well as in the marketplace overall,” Lev said. “In the South and West Loop, it’s just condo after condo, and although I know we could build a really nice condo building there, you end up competing very much on price.”

At press time, Belgravia’s strategy of offering a new options in these new neighborhoods seemed to be working. Of the 69 units at Chelsea Townhomes, priced from the mid-$500s to the $800s, Belgravia already had sold 34. There was only one unit remaining in the developer’s South Loop townhouses, Kensington Park, and 23 of 35 townhouses had been sold at Hartland Park, in West DePaul.

While a comparatively small number of townhouses get built in a market dominated by condos, the genre has continued to evolve. If as Gail Lissner, vice president of Appraisal Research Counselors Ltd., says, the townhouse is “a wonderful bridge between a single-family home and a condo,” then it’s a bridge that lately seems to be straining toward both shores.

Developments such as the Commonwealth on Prairie Avenue, City Club and the Chelsea Townhomes are offering large townhouses that in terms of space, design and price often resemble single-family houses more than townhomes, though the units share common walls. And highrises such as River City, River Bend, 55 E. Erie and River View II, are selling multi-level “townhouses” that offer elements of townhouse design, but in condo buildings with highrise amenities.

Why are the efficient, economical spaces of traditional townhouses expanding at certain developments, while highrise developers stretch select condos into “townhouse” units?

In a word, space. As suburbanites move back to Chicago and current city dwellers stay there longer, the desire for a single-family home lifestyle is increasing among buyers of new construction. An improved cityscape, public schools that have made some progress and a downtown renaissance are luring empty nesters back to the city and convincing some young buyers to put off the traditional flight to the suburbs as they start families.

“Families need the space,” said Lissner. “And they comprise a growing segment of the market.”

People moving from the suburbs into the city want the room they had in their detached homes and the sense of community created by quiet cul-de-sacs and subdivisions. Homeowners in the city want spacious units but with the amenities of a condo. Space in Chicago, however, is coveted and expensive. New single-family homes with fenced yards, driveways and garages sell for more than $1 million even in moderately priced neighborhoods. And in a market where land is scarce and construction costs high, few builders are interested in developing single-family houses.

Enter the Commonwealth. This three-phase project by Rezmar Development Group in the South Loop comprises luxury townhomes, duplexes and flats, at 1815 S. Prairie. The third phase of the project includes 20 “mini-mansion” rowhomes that look and feel like high-end single-families. The units have large windows and high ceilings and unlike in the typical flat row of townhouses, individual units have varied facades with shallow divisions that downplay common walls.

At press time, only the $2.9 million Adler model was available. While that price might seem hefty for an attached home, consider what it gets you: four bedrooms, 4.5 baths, a family room, a library, a study, an elevator and more than 5,860 square feet. Freestanding single-family homes of this size with features like gabled roofs, base and crown moldings, granite counters, private master suites and rooftop decks likely would cost more than the attached units at the Commonwealth.

Even though some of the new projects offer units much larger than traditional townhouses, building with common walls gives developers greater efficiency and lower construction costs, savings that can be passed on to buyers.

Columbia Place, a new townhouse development at 2640 N. Paulina, by JDL Development, offers some units larger than the typical rowhouse and with wider layouts that mimic single-family homes. These townhouses also have two-car garages and high-end finishes such as granite counters, stainless steel appliances, marble master baths and hardwood floors.

The “South Homes” at Columbia Place offer four bedrooms, 3.5 baths and up to more than 4,400 square feet of space, with base prices starting in the $790s. The units are more affordable than single-family homes of comparable size, according to Jim Letchinger, president of JDL, and buyers don’t have to worry about shoveling snow, cutting grass or any of the other chores that are taken care of in most townhouse communities.

“We’re offering the space of a single-family home,” said Letchinger, “but with less maintenance.”
Lev said that in addition to getting larger over the years, Belgravia Group’s townhouses have offered new design options that attract a broader group of buyers.

“We’ve been doing wider homes, homes with elevators, special designs for computers in the space,” Lev said. “At Hartland Park we have some townhomes that that are 24 feet wide, which is hard to get even in a single-family home. Hartland Park also has a quarter-acre park that’s private in addition to private yards and streetscaping. Chelsea Townhomes also have a quarter acre of extra open space apart from the yards.”

The elevator option, which costs about $30,000, according to Lev, has attracted some older buyers who don’t have to worry about stairs in these vertical spaces.

In addition to elevators and maintenance-free living, a number of highrises now offer units with the space and configurations of townhouses. These units are often built into the base of a highrise or on the floor above a parking garage, though some are on higher floors. They typically have townhouse elements such as private entrances, private outdoor space, large square footage and several levels, but they also have access to the full range of highrise features – fitness centers, party rooms, door staff, receiving rooms, sun decks and swimming pools.

“People want the convenience of a highrise, but the feel of single-family square footage,” said Michael Maier, sales manager at MCL Companies’ River East community, where ground-level townhouses are built into the River View II tower. “The townhomes give people a little more of their own sense of space. They have their own private entry overlooking the riverwalk and offer nice outdoor space, as well as rooftop decks.”

The Radco Companies’ River Bend highrise offers just four three-story townhouse units on its promenade level priced in the $2 million range. The townhouses range from 3,700 to more than 6,000 square feet, with three or four bedrooms and 4.5 baths. In addition to high-end finishes and river views, buyers have access to a health club with a Whirlpool spa, steam room, sauna, massage room, business center, party room and exercise room.

At 55 E. Erie, the four-level “skyhomes,” designed in the tradition of urban townhomes, begin on the 12th floor of the new 56-story condo tower by a joint venture of Development Management Group, Inc. and Walsh Investors, LLC. The townhomes start above the parking garage, on the amenities level, where they have easy access to a 25-yard lap pool, a Whirlpool spa and other luxuries. The three available Skyhouses range from 4,357 to 4,376 square feet and are priced from $2.186 million, according to Diane Silverman of Urban Search, the exclusive sales and marketing agent.

These high-end townhouse-style units have been slow to sell in residential towers. In a less active market, price tags ranging upward from $1 million-plus to more than $3 million have put the brakes on sales even though the number of such units is small and many offer fairly quick delivery. The sorts of buyers who want luxury highrise units in this price range may prefer the developments now offering full- and half-floor condos with the same amount of space on a single level, some experts say.

Pricey hybrids and “attached single-family homes,” however, still are not the norm in the townhouse market, which though small, continues to meet the needs of buyers who want more space than they can get in condos but can’t afford single-family homes.

At press time, Dubin Residential had passed the halfway mark in sales at Kilbourn Court, a 116-unit townhouse development where homes have 1,779 to 2,122 square feet and are base priced from the low $300s. The units include two or three bedrooms, two to three baths, dens, balconies, decks and attached two-car garages.

“Kilbourn Court has been well received because we offer the benefits of new construction in a classic Chicago neighborhood – all at a sensible price point,” said Mike Kelahan, director of sales and marketing for Dubin Residential. “…We’re presenting an uncommon city living opportunity that is accessible to a range of homebuyers, from young couples and families looking to set down roots to more established people looking for flexible living options.”

And not only can first-time buyers find a reasonably priced townhouse, buyers at all price levels will fare better with this housing type as a resale, according to developer David Dubin, because there’s much less competition than in the condo market.

“There are a gazillion condos on the market and we feel this is a better product for us,” Dubin said. “…buyers are hesitant to buy a condo because they’re afraid they won’t be able to sell it.”

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