Life, Libertyville and the pursuit of housing

“Country” town now a booming ‘burb where new homes pass $1 million

Just one of the many larger houses that are changing the face of Libertyville

Years ago, before everyone had 150 channels to flip through, a television commercial for a car dealership in Libertyville had a catchy jingle: “Weil Olds in Libertyville – the beautiful place in the country!”

You probably are hearing it right now; that’s how those jingles work.

“We’re not in the country anymore,” says Brad Forsberg, who has lived in Libertyville all of his life, most recently at 118 First St., in a historic neighborhood a few blocks from downtown. The house is for sale, as Forsberg and his wife Donna have moved to downstate Mount Vernon to be closer to their grandchildren. They were back in town recently to check up on their property, a white two-story house with three bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms and an enclosed front porch, listed at $383,900.

“I used to be a barber, and I could walk down the street and know everybody,” Forsberg says. “Now when I walk down the street I don’t know anyone.”

First Street is one of those classic, old suburban streets with mature maple trees lining the sidewalks and bright American flags hanging at an angle from front porches. Brad Forsberg loved living on First Street not only for that aesthetic, but also because he could walk downtown in a matter of minutes to take in several great restaurants and cozy bars, a movie at the Liberty, or some peace and quiet in the quaint Cook Memorial Park, Libertyville’s village green.

Teardowns an issue

Walking is an easy means of transportation in LibertyvilleDowntown Chicago was more of a trek. Libertyville is in Lake County, roughly 37 miles northwest of Chicago and seven miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline. The community sits directly west of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, east of Mundelein, north of Vernon Hills and south of Gurnee. With a population of more than 20,000 residents (it has more than doubled since 1960), Libertyville still retains its small-town charm. Some fear, however, that the town’s biggest housing issues – teardowns and add-ons – are changing the look and feel for the worse. It’s the same old story: too much house on too little lot.

“Some have stayed halfway decent,” says Donna Forsberg, glancing up and down the block at homes that have been remodeled. “We like it when they fix up the old ones.”

But sometimes they knock the old ones down and build new ones that don’t compare, some longtime residents say.

“We’re losing our history with all the teardowns,” says Judy Kennedy, a neighbor of the Forsbergs who has lived in Libertyville for most of the last 60 years. “I guess we just have to accept it.”

It’s a chain reaction, according to Jack Shaver, president of Century Bay Builders, a Libertyville-based remodeling and construction company. Call it keeping up with the Joneses.

“We have a project coming up where the people are surrounded by new homes, knockdowns, and they want to remodel their house to get it up to par with the other homes in their neighborhood,” Shaver says. “And they’re spending a half a million dollars to do it.”

Rising prices

The median sales price for single-family homes in Libertyville in 2005 was $461,750, up from $425,000 the year before and $328,750 in 2000. For attached homes, the median sales price was $250,000 last year, $234,000 in 2004, and $172,750 in 2000. The median rent in Libertyville is $835 a month.

Property values are constantly on the rise, and in many cases, prime land is sitting under a tired old house, or one that has room for expansion. Shaver estimates that in certain Libertyville neighborhoods, especially those close to downtown, one in 10 houses is a teardown.

“There’s not really much that people can do about it,” Shaver says. “They can go and voice an opinion at a meeting, but there’s not really much they can do about it.”
Some argue that the teardowns and remodeling projects are positive for the village.
“Libertyville is a pretty old town and it’s going through a makeover, which is good for it,” says Dave Higgins, owner of Carriage Realty. “It can be painful, but it is good for it. The 100-year-old homes are sitting on valuable real estate.”

Besides, there are no real gems being razed.

“They’re not tearing down any historical houses,” says indie rocker Ike Reilly, yet another lifelong Libertyville resident. Reilly, who recently released a collection of six acoustic songs and rarities on iTunes called The Last Demonstration, lives and works in a converted 88-year-old hunting lodge on the east side of town. Like most people in Libertyville, Reilly and his family have plenty of space.

Luxury development

Condominiums have made their way into town, but they have done so slowly, in small numbers. One noteworthy project in the planning stage is scheduled to be built on Milwaukee Avenue just north of downtown. It will include about 15 luxury condos of 2,200 to 5,000 square feet each. Developer Joe Tremont says that these new condos have preconstruction prices ranging from $500,000 to $1.2 million. The condominiums will occupy the top two floors of the three-story project, which has yet to be named, and 22,000 square feet of retail and restaurants will anchor the ground floor.

“It’s going to be quite an impressive project,” Higgins says. “I’m constantly amazed where the money comes from, but it always seems to be there.”

Ansel B Cook home in LibertyvilleIndeed, there seems to be no shortage of money for new homes in Libertyville, where detached houses these days are priced from well over half a million dollars to more than $1 million. D.R. Horton is building 25 “executive style” single-family homes on a site at the corner of Garfield Road and Austin Avenue with three to five bedrooms, two to three baths, attached three-car garages and 3,390 to more than 4,300 square feet. At press time, they were priced from the $770s to the $880s.

The starting price is higher, in the $950s, at Emerald Greens, 26 single-families by Merit Homes, at 6562 Persimmon, just southwest of Milwaukee Avenue and Belvidere Road. The homes sit on one-acre lots with views of the Merit Club golf course, and all are “custom,” according to the developer, with porcelain tile, Italian marble, paneled wood, elliptical barrel ceilings and other luxury features.

Liberty Grove, a new-construction development at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Buckley Road, has sold out its phase of more affordable townhouses and is now offering luxury single-families. In addition to 30 sold-out townhouses, the Ferris Homes development includes 18 detached single-families, which at press time, were priced from $638,800. The traditional houses have oak floors in living areas, woodburning fireplaces, custom-built staircases, KitchenAid stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, Woodmode cabinets, Kohler fixtures and 2.5- to three-car garages.

A hot spot

A stretch of Milwaukee Avenue north of downtown near the David Adler Cultural Center is a popular spot for condominiums and townhomes. A number of developments in this area have been completed within the last five years or currently are under construction.
Where does the money come from? Several large corporations – Abbott, Baxter, Walgreen’s and Motorola are a few – provide high-end jobs for the area and are part of the reason Libertyville has seen an influx of new money and more affluent residents in the past two or three decades.

“When I was a kid my friends’ dads either owned a gas station or they were an electrician or something like that,” Reilly says. “My dad ended up here when he was in the navy at Great Lakes. No one back then was thinking about 401ks, or pension funds. It was a blue-collar town with a few people commuting downtown. It was slower, you know?”
The new businesses are nice, though, Reilly admits that.

New amenities

Brad and Donna Forsberg are selling their home in LibertyvilleThe jewel in Libertyville’s gastronomic crown has to be The Tavern, a funky yet elegant upscale restaurant just steps from the village green, on Milwaukee Avenue. Housed in a 19th century building, The Tavern’s décor relies heavily on antique headboards and bedposts, and vintage wallpaper. The ceiling holds a colorful array of hanging beads and a large collection of even more colorful Vietnamese hot air balloon models.

Next door is Firkin, which is owned by the same couple. A casual bar and eatery with a high ceiling and a high-end list of lagers and ales, Firkin keeps up its end of the funky décor bargain with strings of colorful lights and flags celebrating Bob Marley and Jamaica.
Should you find yourself at Firkin one day or night, the smoked salmon panini is a good bet, but you might also try the horseradish chicken or chipotle-marinated lamb. The Tavern serves upscale American fare (specializing in prime steaks, but also offering fish, fowl, chicken, lamb and pasta) and has more than 300 wine selections. Two things that should not go unordered on your next visit to The Tavern are the Caviar Potato Chips appetizer ($14.95), and the 8-ounce Top Sirloin Blue, which is topped with melted blue Costello cheese, chopped garlic and truffle butter ($22.95). Let the servers help you with wine – they know their stuff.

It’s a long way to go for dinner if you live in the city, but as the old saw goes, it’s worth the trip. While Libertyville is still as beautiful as the Weil Oldsmobile jingle promised, Brad Forsberg also was right when he said it was not exactly “the country” anymore. Even the Weil dealership has gone upscale; these days they sell Cadillacs and Hummers.

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