The disappearing 20-somethings

Can people under 30 find affordable housingâ€"and happinessâ€"in family-centric Oak Park?

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By JONATHAN SCHULER

Alma Cervantes grew up in Oak Park. She went to Oak Park and River Forest High School and now attends Triton Community College in River Grove. She lives with her mother in Oak Park, and the junior is looking to transfer to the University of Illinois next semester. When she graduates, she plans to target the Chicago area in her job search.

She's not sure where she'll end up livingâ€"the city would be ideal, she said. But there's one place she's certain she won't be: Oak Park.

"I really want to get out. I want to experience more of what's outside of Oak Park," she said. "Oak Park creates this whole little world here and that's what makes it so hard for people to leave. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you stay in Oak Park you're going to get stuck. I'm looking for something new, something different."

Apparently Cervantes isn't the only person in the 20 to 29 demographic looking for something else other than Oak Park. In fact, according to the most recent Census figures, Oak Park has seen a 23.3 percent decrease in the number of 20-somethings in the past decade. The figures are similar in River Forest, where there was a 32.5 percent decrease from 1990 to 2000, and in Forest Park, where there was a 22.6 percent drop.

Compared to the national decrease of 4 percent in that same timeframeâ€"or even the 17.4 percent drop in Illinoisâ€"the numbers are astronomical.

Although the U.S. Census Bureau has compiled more recent information for regions across the country, its 2004 numbers don't include this area. But local officials said if there was a mass exodus of that demographic in the 1990s, the 20-somethings have started to come back. Especially in Forest Park.

And you can thank affordable housing for the group's resurgence, said Marion Digre, a local real estate agent.

"I would say that I've dealt with a lot of young people in the last couple years, more than I used to. And I don't know how to account for that," she said. "If there's more products, people will come out to buy them. It seems to me that we've had, in the past two years or so, the types of properties come on the market that would attract younger people."

Those properties, specifically, are condos.

"The prices in this area had outstripped any sort of salary increases," Digre said. "The same young couple five years ago who would be able to buy a house can't keep up so they're turning to condos."

Digre, co-owner of RE/MAX in the Village, moved from Chicago to an apartment in Forest Park in 1988 with the goal of owning a home in Oak Park. Eventually she bought a house in Oak Park, before purchasing her current home in River Forest. But she's intrigued by the redevelopment of Forest Park.

"Back then, if Forest Park was what it is like now, we might've considered buying a house there instead," she said.

City living

Kelly Carlin did just the opposite. As a senior at Dominican University in River Forest, she bought her first condominium in Oak Park when she was 21 years old. Seeing real estate as an investment, three years later she bought another condo in Oak Park and rented it to her brother. At 25 she moved to her third and current condo, this time on Madison Street in Forest Park.

"I would've never considered Forest Parkâ€"when I moved it wasn't any place exciting to be," she said. "And then they redid Madison Street and it's just a whole different feel. It's trendy, it's close to restaurants, it has a lot of family-owned businesses and great shops. At the time, it just wasn't comparable to Oak Park, but now it totally is. As for the condo, the space is great but the noise is a little annoying. But that's the city living part of it."

City living is what David Powers thinks is drawing more people to live in the area. Powers, a spokesman for the Village of Oak Park, said the appeal of Oak Park has always been its location. He said he's seen a trend where younger people tend to live in more urban environments. Oak Park provides that urban feel, he said.

But determining whether Oak Park is "urban" depends on who you ask and their idea of city living. Powers said he has a 22-year-old daughter who lived in Oak Park, went away to school in Missouri and now lives in Manhattan.

"She told me she wanted to live in New York City," he said. "I think that type of thing appeals to the younger crowd."

In addition to being a fan of Oak Park's urban feel, Carlin also found the proliferation of new construction attractive. She said she was going for a low-maintenance property, where everything was done for her.

"I wanted to have a nice place, be able to have friends over and not have it be gross, and invest my money and do it wisely. We had the option of buying a house this last time around or buying a condo, but I just didn't want to play house," she said. "The houses in the similar price range needed work and that was something I wasn't willing to do at this point."

But developers will do itâ€"and they're doing it here with numerous projects in varying scales. And it's drawing a younger crowd, said Mike Fox, a partner for Oak Park-based developers R.P. Fox and Associates.

Fox said his company is renovating a
55-unit complex called Avenue Square at 217 N. Oak Park Ave., and all but 10 of the mostly one-bedroom units have sold for between $170,000 and $185,000. A recently completed 51-unit project at Chicago and Lombard avenues called Garden Gate has just a couple spots remaining, going for $135,000 to $155,000.

"There are some retirees and divorcees there, but the majority of those units are taken by the younger crowd," Fox said.

No magic wand

River Forest has seen only a handful of condominiums and town homes developed there in the last couple of years, said Steve Gutierrez, assistant village administrator for River Forest.

"It's a little more different dynamic here," he said. "There is more of a single-family residential community here, I would say, and I think that, along with home values or the market, so to speak, it doesn't lend itself to a 20-something niche."

But he said many of those in the 20 to 29 demographic that do live in River Forest have ties to the area. And because they valued the community, they are seeking to establish their family in the same place.

River Forest, Oak Park and Forest Park officials all said they don't typically market toward any specific demographic, wanting instead to include everyone. However, Forest Park does make governmental decisions with that age group in mind, said Michael Sturino, village administrator for Forest Park.

"There is marketing toward that age group, though it's more in the business community. There is a Madison Street marketing group that advertises in publications that are designed to speak to the younger crowd," Sturino said. "Some of their messages are urban and edgy and less suburban. And frankly, we've talked about it, too. We're constantly reinventing ourselves."

He said the village is revamping its website in order to stay fresh. At the same time, the discussions surrounding zoning on Madison Street are centered on what's going to drive people into town, including things like sign regulations and how restrictive the village will be.

The project that has made the largest impact on Forest Park is the redevelopment of Madison Street, which Sturino said has been a work in progress for the past 10 years.

"There really wasn't a kind of magic wand that was waved," he said. "The streetscape improvements were about 10 years ago and the vision is finally coming about." He said there are more condos and mixed-use buildings with retail on the way. Additional parking is being discussed, and the village is looking at measures to enhance pedestrian accessibility, as well.

The development in Forest Park is certainly not going unnoticed, especially to Cervantes, the 20-year-old Oak Park resident who's itching to discover what's beyond the boundaries of North Avenue, Austin Boulevard, Roosevelt Road and Harlem Avenue.

After she graduates from college, she'll look for a place in Chicago if she gets a job here. But she thinks a place in the city will be too expensive and is seriously considering Forest Park.

But she said she wouldn't mind eventually returning home when it comes time to raise a family. "Oak Park, beyond anything else, is awfully comforting to come back to," she said.

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