Palatine's smart growth

Metra station is focal point for continuing building boom downtown

Sue Curry is a living endorsement for Palatine. She was born in Boston but moved with her family to this northwestern Chicago suburb as a baby. Now 45 and married with two children of her own, ages 13 and 9, she has lived in Palatine her entire life, with the exception of her years at college in Carbondale.

That is endorsement enough, that she would move back to her hometown to settle after college. But there is a kicker.

“I think I would have moved here even if I hadn’t grown up here,” she says.

She lists good schools as her top reason, then she talks about Palatine’s proximity to O’Hare Airport, and downtown Chicago, and some of the best shopping in the area. The park system, she says, might be the second most important reason, after schools.

The village maintains more than 40 parks, with programs ranging from theater instruction at Cutting Hall to golf on one of two courses – one traditional golf, the other for flying discs, or what used to be called Frisbees. At the park district’s stables, residents can learn everything from the basics (saddle ol’ Bessie) to the most advanced hunter-jumper techniques (“Get that fox!”). And to show the world that Palatine is up to date in recreation, there is a water park, and even a skate park.

“It’s a great place to raise your kids,” Curry says. “It’s a great family town.”

Town center faded

The village of Palatine lies just northwest of the intersection of Route 53 and I-90 (the Kennedy Expressway), 28 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, and 14 miles northwest of O’Hare. It is still a quiet conglomeration of subdivisions and outlying neighborhoods, but downtown Palatine has become the site of a building boom that has transformed the suburban community and made it a model for others.

In just five years, around 1,000 units of new housing were developed – more are on the way – the retail base expanded, and the character of downtown Palatine vastly improved. Follow commuters trailing out of the new Metra station, past all of the new condos, townhouses and shops, and the revival might seem like a foregone conclusion. But it was far from certain in the mid-’90s.

Back then, Palatine’s commuter train station was surrounded mostly by empty space in the form of parking lots. Northwest Highway had been rerouted, which diverted attention from the area, and Woodfield Mall took its shoppers. After a period of disinvestment, downtown Palatine had faded into the shadows.

Transit-centered building

In the late ’90s, however, the village embarked on a redevelopment process, encouraged by similar efforts underway in Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights. Those suburbs sit on the same Metra line as Palatine, which decided to focus its efforts around transit.

A tax-increment financing district was established, along with a number of public-private partnerships. Metra worked with the community on plans for a new train station, and Joseph Freed and Associates came on board with Gateway Center, mixed-use project that included a parking garage with more than 1,200 spaces, 33,000 square feet of retail, a new 15,000-square-foot restaurant-entertainment complex for Durty Nellie’s and 280 new condos and townhouses collectively called The Groves of Palatine.

Gateway Center meant that while ample parking still would be available, the numbing surface lots could be replaced with development. Those parking lots have been filled with new building, and because the focus has revolved around transit and “smart” growth, downtown Palatine has taken on something of an urban feel.

Urban character

This is not just the usual suburban housing stock. Upscale brownstone-like townhomes now line one downtown street, and loft condominiums line another.

The Hummel Group’s Providence Condominiums, 53 W Slade, features new units with one to three bedrooms, priced from the $270s to the $870s in the heart of downtown, a short walk from the new train station. With its red brick, mansard roof and beaux-arts accents, The Providence Condominiums look at first glance like the renovation of a stately old hotel or courthouse, rather than new construction. The new-construction Providence Lofts have an urban feel, with nine-foot ceilings, hardwood floors and exposed ductwork.

InterCapital Partners is building 76 townhouses walking distance from downtown at Palatine Commons, just off of Northwest Highway, at Fairview Way. The three-level homes have attached two-car garages, two-story living areas and master suites, priced from the $360s to the $440s. Following the smart growth theme focused around the downtown train station and shops, the project’s motto is “Next to the action, far from the noise.”

The new Durty Nellie’s restaurant, bar and entertainment complex accounts for a big piece of that action part of Gateway Center, a co-anchor with the new Metra station, which sits across the street.

“None of this was here when I lived here,” says Durty Nellie’s executive chef Aaron Aggarwal, 39.

Aggarwal, who grew up in Palatine and graduated from Fremd High School in 1984, lived with a buddy in the downtown area until nine years ago. Not even the new version of Durty Nellie’s, opened in 2003, was there at the time.

Today Durty Nellie’s offers live music several days a week, and Aggarwal’s global fare rises far above typical pub grub. “Pub grub” is probably a misnomer in the first place, despite the massive size of the place and the fact that Aggarwal’s dinner menu is referred to as the “pub menu.” It is clear that the chef places a premium on fresh ingredients and careful preparation. That was obvious recently in his pan-seared Norwegian salmon on bleu cheese risotto with balsamic glazed baby spinach. A steaming helping of jambalaya was also tasty, with tender gulf shrimp and spicy andouille sausage.

New residents

Aggarwal’s attention to detail could be seen as a sign of a larger movement – that Palatine is growing up in a way, growing from a quiet self-contained burg to a livelier commuter destination for young families and singles. Weekday inbound commutes to the Loop run about an hour, two or more express trains per day shaving at least 15 minutes from that time.

“We’re getting a lot more commuters than we have ever had,” says Angelica Salcido-Coit, the sales manager at Prudential Preferred Properties in Palatine. “Now I’m getting more of the type of buyer who would have never considered Palatine before because it didn’t have that urban feel. With the brownstone townhomes and the lofts, it gives it more of a Chicago feel.”

Salcido-Coit says she recently noticed one of those brownstones listed in the $700s, a rarity for Palatine. While the downtown remains a work in progress, dramatic changes have been made. There’s now a health club downtown – for the first time ever – and a Starbucks in the new train station, the sort of high-impact commercial that draws residents. Retail, however, still lags residential development.

“I think one thing that people are looking forward to is more retail,” Salcido-Coit says. “Right now we have a lot of housing development, but there still may not be enough restaurants or shops. We need the people here first and then the shops will come.”

For Sue Curry, who lives on the southwest side of town – “the Fremd side,” as some call it, referring to Palatine High School’s cross-town rival – shopping is not a problem.

“We are three miles away from Deer Park, a relatively new shopping center, and five miles away from Woodfield,” she says.

But downtown Palatine could use more stores to complement the striking new housing developments, including The Preserve of Palatine and the Benchmark of Palatine by R. Franczak & Associates. The new condos have one to three bedrooms and one or two baths, priced from the $250s. The project, which has a sales center at 132 W. Johnson, is, of course, close to the new Metra station.

Earlier growth

The Village of Palatine can trace its roots back to the 1830s, when East Coast pioneers trekked to the verdant pastures of the Midwest at the suggestion of soldiers returning from the 1832 Black Hawk War. George Ela, who constructed a log cabin on his homestead, is credited with being the first European to settle in the area.

The village was incorporated in 1866, which explains why even today there are stately mansions in and around the village’s downtown. The George Clayson House, built in 1873, has been lovingly renovated, converted to a museum, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the village spreads in all directions from downtown, the housing stock turns from historic homes to wood-frame ranches and split-levels, most of which were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Salcido-Coit.

This was Palatine’s boom time. From 1960 to 1970, the village population grew to 25,900 from 11,500. It leveled off in 1973 when population figures had inched up only to 28,800. But people never stopped moving to Palatine; by 2000 the village had swelled to accommodate 65,479 residents. With the downtown renaissance underway, that number likely will have risen again by the time of the next census.

Still affordable

Residential growth and the effects of an area-wide housing boom have pushed prices north in Palatine, but it’s still comparatively affordable, given its convenience to O’Hare and the Loop. The 346-unit Runaway Bay Condominiums, which sits on 20 acres, has one-bedroom units starting at $102,900 and three-bedrooms starting at $169,900.

Interstate Properties Group is selling Lake Louise Condominiums, a conversion at a similar price point, at 430 N. Wilke Road. The complex features 120 one- and two-bedroom units in five two-story brick buildings. It is all but sold out, and 85 percent owner-occupied, says Tony Pagone, an Interstate Properties Group partner, and Lake Louise’s sales manager. Of those owners, 75 percent are first-time buyers.

“The town is vibrant,” Pagone says. “We have schools close to Lake Louise, so that’s attractive, especially for young buyers who may be contemplating a child at some point.”

Another plus to Lake Louise’s location – across town from Fremd, on the Palatine High School side – is its proximity to not only the Palatine commuter train, but also to the neighboring Arlington Heights Metra station.

“There are several apartment complexes that have been converted in the northwest suburbs, and there will probably be more,” Pagone says. “Some towns want to preserve some rental units, but the way things are today, the socio-economic factors really allow people to own. The ability to own has become much more desirable and possible.”

Sue Curry is pleased that her hometown is coming alive, but as a mother, she knows all too well about growing pains.

“I think that’s a concern,” she says. “It could be too much too fast. We don’t really know the impact of all the development yet because it’s not all occupied. They’re doing a nice job, and the buildings are beautiful, but we haven’t seen what impact it is going to have on schools and traffic and everything else.”

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