Chicago's best new homes

Dining area at Zen

Chicagoans have always treated architecture as a spectator sport, but for decades frustrated fans have watched as the players repeatedly dropped the ball in a game we once dominated.

However, in 2006, Chicago is staging a comeback in the most exalted of architectural endeavors: high-rise design. The condo boom in new downtown neighborhoods like Lakeshore East, the Loop and Streeterville, continues to yield high-rises of varying quality, but the overall field of contenders is a lot stronger than in years past.

A number of stars, dazzling projects like Urban R2’s 600 N. Fairbanks, designed by Helmut Jahn, and The Fordham Company’s proposed Fordham Spire, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, have catapulted Chicago into the national spotlight. Not since the completion of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s modernist “glass house” apartment towers at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive more than five decades ago, have observers of the Chicago skyline been in better moods.

But when New Homes casts its gaze over Chicago’s all-star(chitect) team of 2006, it is a rookie – at least when it comes to residential construction – who really shines. Jeanne Gang hit one out of the park with her debut high-rise, Aqua, at Magellan Development’s New East Side community, Lakeshore East.

Aqua at LakeShore EastArchitecture critic Lynn Becker has suggested that the 822-foot tower might be the tipping point for Chicago design, signaling a “Third School” of Chicago architecture. Aqua’s boldly rippled façade, created by designing sweeping terraces of varying sizes and angles across the rectangular facade, is a brilliant example of form following function. With its “bumped” façade, Gang’s stunning addition to the skyline will offer homeowners wonderful and unexpected city views.

Coming back down to earth, New Homes was less inspired by many of the developments in other housing categories. Lofts showed perhaps the most creativity. The loft craze peaked in the late 1990s and slowed in recent years as the supply of convertible buildings was depleted. But the loft market has grown during the last year, as developers have fanned out to new neighborhoods. Projects range from pared-down “starter-homes” reminiscent of the original lofts, to sophisticated condos with designer finishes, like the Tailor at Jackson.

Our pick for the best loft in 2006 goes to a project that falls somewhere in the middle – W Developments’ Odyssey Lofts. Developer David T. Wallach’s striking conversion of a storage facility is rich in “lofty” characteristics and provides high-quality homes in a broad range of prices.

The field of contenders for best new mid-rise was disappointingly narrow. Squat bland buildings continue to dominate this housing type. On the bright side, New Homes discovered some notable exceptions that hopefully will inspire other developers to think outside the brick box. Ranquist Development’s progressive 156 W. Superior fulfilled the promise of its good-looking rendering, for instance, with a beautifully transparent loft-like design.

But in 2006, the gong goes to Oculus Development’s aptly named Zen, where the architect clearly has meditated on the art of creating a “livable” space. Although the gray textured masonry that wraps around Zen’s ground-level garage is less than ideal, the building’s simple and intelligent lines more than redeem it.

Over the last few years, New Homes has recorded fewer and fewer townhomes and single-family homes on the market, as the rising price of land dictated denser and more lucrative condo projects. The fields were slim, but in 2006 we were pleased to discover several worthy projects in both categories.

In making our selections for Chicago’s best new homes, we put ourselves in the position of homebuyers studying the new-construction market, considering everything from location and floor plans to amenities, architecture and pricing. We chose projects that scored well across various categories and so represented the best available housing. Admittedly, our choices are subjective but we think that the following projects would be good starting points for anyone in the market for a new home.

Chicago’s best new high-rise

Aqua at Lakeshore EastAs good as it is, location takes a backseat to design in this project, though in the able hands of architect Jeanne Gang, of Studio / Gang Architects, location and look are inextricably linked. Gang has given her debut high-rise a rippling façade inspired by the waves of Lake Michigan and the weathered sandstone outcrops of the Great Lakes.

Gang’s theory was that if she “bumped out the façade” at various angles for each floor plate, she would not only create a one-of-a-kind design, but also would be able to give residents unique and unexpected views. In what’s believed to be a first for Chicago, builders will use global positioning technology and laser beams to pour the building’s concrete floor plates.

Aqua scores on other points, too. The building, which also will include rental apartments, retail space and a hotel, has an exhaustive list of amenities. These include gazebos, cabanas, pools, hot tubs, a fire pit, a running track and a sky garden. Inside, Magellan is offering an Internet café, a wine room, a billiards and game room, a coffee bar and a lounge as well as a private party suite with a kitchen. Magellan is marketing 286 condos at Aqua. At press time, studios were priced from the $200s, one-bedrooms from the $350s and two-bedrooms from the $600s. First occupancy is scheduled for summer 2008.

Odyssey Lofts
Chicago’s best new loft

Odyssey Lofts, 775 W. Jackson Blvd., first grabbed our attention with the marketing slogan, “If you lived here, you would be Homer by now,” a reference to the development’s proximity to Greek Town. But we’re pleased to report that W Developments’ Odyssey Lofts delivers even if you’re not a fan of bad puns.

Odyssey LoftsOdyssey is a timber loft development, a rare breed in Chicago in 2006, as the number of loft developments has shrunk, and many of the latest are concrete. The building, which was once a storage facility, has some wonderfully lofty touches, including exposed brick, heavy timber beams, exposed ductwork and high ceilings.

W Developments and conversion architect Hirsch Associates have managed to retain the building’s integrity and make this a very livable space. The developer has added two new-construction floors to the top of the structure, but the pastiche project avoids the awkward look of so many loft projects that include additions. By painting the building’s exterior striking shades of white and taupe, W Developments has given the renovated structure unity and presence.

The interiors are just as winning. Lofts commonly have floor plans that are long and narrow, with only one end of the unit exposed to natural light. At Odyssey Lofts, even the longer floor plans on the first two floors have two sides of light, thanks to the configuration of the building. The upper floors have more spacious units that either run parallel to the exterior walls or are wider, with better proportions than most lofts. Balconies and patios are positioned off of living and dining rooms, and given the views from this corner of the West Loop, should offer some great vistas.

The 70-unit project has loft condos with one to three bedrooms priced from the $200s to the $620s. They have stainless steel kitchen appliances, Kohler kitchen and bathroom fixtures, fireplaces and soaking tubs.

We feel right at Homer.

Chicago’s best new mid-rise

ZenFinally, the West Loop appears to have had enough of bland brick mid-rises all cut from the same cloth. Or maybe developers realized that if they wanted to sell units here, they’d better start setting themselves apart from the crowd.

Oculus Development has done just that with Zen, an 82-unit condo project at 225 S. Sangamon St. Ok, maybe the name is a bit much, but the design by VOA Associates does display a lot more balance and harmony – buzz words in Zen’s marketing campaign – than most new-construction buildings in the West Loop.

The building has lines that are clean and elegant, but this cool façade is not simple. The tinted floor-to-ceiling glass set in metal frames is punctuated with gray textured masonry, rows of recessed balconies and a decorative open canopy. The look is progressive and modern but not especially spare, and given what’s been built in the West Loop lately, the neighborhood should welcome this visual variety.

The floor plans are efficient, and even in the smallest units, open layouts and expansive glass should make the space feel airy and larger than residents might guess from the square footage. The bedrooms are at opposite ends of the space in larger units, maximizing privacy, and some of the condos have particularly nice touches – diagonal entrance halls or balconies with access from both master bedrooms and living rooms.

The homes have granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and hardwood floors. Building amenities include door staff, a fitness room and extra storage. At press time, prices ranged from the $240s to the $290s.

Beverly Place
Chicago’s best new townhouse

Beverly PlaceTownhouses are ideal for growing families, offering more privacy and space than condos but at prices more affordable than single-family houses. It’s a pity then that the number of townhomes being built in Chicago has dropped over the years, as rising land prices have deterred developers.

This year our vote for the best townhouse development went to Beverly Place, 1824 W. 103rd St., a community of 28 three-story townhomes and 10 condominiums by Axis Properties, LLC and Northern Realty Group in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Beverly Hills.

Beverly Place provides spacious townhomes with practical floor plans, some of which offer four bedrooms, a rare find in Chicago’s new-construction market.

Features include granite counters, stainless steel appliances, cultured marble bathroom counters and soaking tubs. The red brick homes have one- or two-car attached garages, with private back yards, configured around a landscaped courtyard.

The homes at Beverly Place are larger and less expensive than those at many competing developments. The two- to four-bedroom townhomes range from 1,868 to 3,016 square feet and at press time, were priced from the $390s to the $500s.

Beverly may not be a “hot” neighborhood, and it’s certainly not walking distance from the Loop, but access to trains and the Dan Ryan Expressway (not especially useful at the moment) is good. The quiet community is known for being racially integrated and for its tree-lined streets and lively Irish pubs. It is perhaps most famous, though, for having four landmark districts full of historic homes and a variety of landmark houses, including several designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Enclave at Sheridan Pointe
Chicago’s best single-family home

The Enclave at Sheridan PointeIn our quest to find the best single-family home in 2006, New Homes ventured beyond the city limits. We did so partly to draw attention to the superb location of The Enclave at Sheridan Pointe, but also because the Chicago market is so dominated by condos that the single-family home is becoming an endangered species.

If location is everything in real estate, The Enclave at Sheridan Pointe, by Red Seal Homes, is hard to beat. The development of 15 upper-bracket single-family homes straddles the North Shore suburbs of Evanston and Wilmette on a site that’s part of the former National-Louis University campus. Available land in these highly developed, highly desirable communities is scarce, so the university’s move presented a rare redevelopment opportunity.

The project, which is situated on a seven-acre site located around Sheridan and Maple avenues, is a block from Lake Michigan and steps from the Baker Demonstration School.
¼br /> The two-story homes are traditional, with stone, gables, bay windows and wood trim. They will have three to six bedrooms and at least 3,200 square feet, and some are on lots that measure as much as one-third of an acre.

Features include formal living and dining rooms, libraries, large family rooms with fireplaces, and two- or three-car attached garages. Master suites have his and hers walk-in closets, master baths with double-bowl vanities and soaking tubs. Kitchens include granite countertops, custom cabinetry and stainless steel appliances, and bathrooms have designer fixtures and porcelain tile. At press time, the homes were priced from $1.5 million to more than $2.3 million.

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