Building Boom Takes the Windy City by Storm

Strong economy drives Chicago's biggest growth spurt in the past century.

Buckingham Place, just blocks from Chicago's Wrigley Field, is usually a quiet, tree-lined residential street. Now it's a construction war zone.

Hammers pound away at an old theater being renovated into apartments, and earth-movers rumble behind a new condominium building. Next door, construction workers stir up dust as they start yet another foundation for condos.

The scene here is part of the biggest building boom in Chicago since this "city of broad shoulders" hoisted and hammered its way back from the Great Fire of 1871. From inner-city lofts to suburban tract homes, from gritty industrial corridors to swanky Michigan Avenue, the growth spurt encompasses both residential and commercial construction - and it shows no sign of letting up.

"It's a gold rush kind of mentality," says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which monitors the city's public-works spending.

The strong economy, low interest rates, and high consumer confidence are driving the expansion here, just as they are elsewhere. But Chicago's boom is somewhat unusual in its breadth - embracing impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods such as Lawndale, and adding significantly to its housing stock.

While metropolitan Chicago does not lead the nation in housing starts, this year it is slated to build nearly four times as much new housing as New York City and six times as much as San Francisco, according to US Census Bureau data.

The renaissance of Chicago's downtown as a place not only to work and eat - but also to live - is part of what sets the city apart, say city officials and real-estate developers.

"No other metropolitan area in the United States has such a vibrant residential area in its urban core," says Tracy Cross, a real-estate marketing consultant in suburban Schaumburg, Ill.

"People are discovering - or rediscovering - that the city of Chicago is a more livable place," agrees Christopher Hill, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Planning and Development.

Chicago developer Bruce Abrams recalls when his firm erected the first loft building in the River North area, now known for art galleries and tourist stops such as Planet Hollywood and Michael Jordan's Restaurant. That was in 1993. Today more than 60 loft and new construction developments are in the neighborhood, he says.

THE suburbs are nearly as flush. New residents are pushing the boundaries of the metropolitan area further out from the city to far-flung suburbs like Naperville, 30 miles west of Chicago. In Naperville, new subdivisions are gobbling up farmland, and houses are selling in one day.

When plots of farmland in Naperville went up for sale three years ago, Anita and Robert DiNello jumped at the chance to buy space where they could custom-build a five-bedroom home. Today, theirs is one of 130 houses one of many new subdivisions dotting the suburban landscape.

"We love it," Anita DiNello says of her new house, beaming over the first sprigs of an herb garden in the backyard.

But all the growth is not problem-free, and the single biggest drawback, hands down, is traffic.

On a recent Monday afternoon, the Eisenhower Expressway, a major artery connecting the city and the western suburbs, is a parking lot. It is only 2:30.

With little or no mass transit in the suburbs, many employees in the Chicago area drive between 20 and 60 miles one way to their jobs. Some suburban employers have resorted to busing in workers from the city and offering much higher pay much than minimum wage.

To help ease congestion, the city is trying to induce developers to build their projects near mass transit. To address tight parking, the planning department is asking developers of large residential buildings to include two parking spaces per home, rather than the usual single spot.

"We're just trying to keep in front of these projects, so that as they develop they help the city and are not just part of the boom to make money," Mr. Hill says. City officials have taken care, too, to encourage development in neighborhoods of all economic levels.

But some critics charge that city officials are too focused on encouraging development in downtown Chicago and the more prosperous neighborhoods.

"The city needs to ... have a more balanced approach if everyone is going to participate in economic growth," says Ms. Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

While the region's growth keeps up its brisk pace, even the residents who benefit aren't sure they like all of the development. A recent survey by the Metro Chicago Information Center showed 68 percent of residents favor zoning boundaries to preserve farmland and open space.

Still, trying to figure out how to manage growth "is a good problem to have," says Peter Skosey of the Metropolitan Planning Council. "At the same time, we want to make sure we're providing for future generations."

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