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In the unique architectural bubble that is Oak Park and River Forest, it seems that every house must have an historic pedigree. Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces, Victorian manses and even lowly cottages are prized for their links to the past.
Historic home lovers may ooh and ah over original, unpainted woodwork, and beautifully tiled fireplaces, but the simple fact is that older homes come with a variety of age-associated problems. They usually lack desirable open floor plans and often suffer from lack of insulation or less-than-solid foundations. As our suburban neighbors to the west are experiencing a new home building boom, can Oak Park and River Forest expect the same?
Local developer Dan Moroney doesn't see why not.
"One of my builders took me to Hinsdale to see all the new construction that's going on there. I'm trying to find out what the appetite is for new homes here," he says. "Why aren't there more when we have so much to offer?
"Out there, there's a building boom of big, beautiful homes with top-of-the-line finishes, and most homes sell before construction is complete. There are currently 19 new homes on the MLS (multiple listing service) in Hinsdale. All these builders are out there, not [in Oak Park and River Forest]. I see that as an opportunity here."
Moroney just listed his latest project, a new home at 7837 Greenfield in River Forest. He built the four-bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom house from the ground up with the intention of combining the ambience of an old home with new construction.
"It's designed to look like an old home," he explains. "I've been renovating older homes in Oak Park for 10 years, and I've kind of pulled everything I like about old homes into this house."
Inside, the wood moldings, beamed ceilings and built-ins are reminiscent of homes over 100 years old. Moroney says he looked to his sister's E.E. Roberts home for inspiration in designing the finishes.
"Nothing is original; it's all ideas from old homes that people respond to. You can have all that with the luxury of a new home. And with a new home, you're able to get better flow between the rooms."
Moroney says the advantage of new construction is his ability to replicate historic decorative touches while using more modern floor plans and materials.
"The quality of new construction is great. The difference between old and new is night and day. No matter how much renovating you do, 100-year-old homes will always have 100-year-old problems. Newer homes are built up to and beyond today's codes, and obviously, there's something to be said for all new mechanicals."
Moroney, who also built his own Oak Park home from the ground up, is clearly a proponent of new construction, but Oak Park and River Forest are hardly hotbeds of such building.
According to Steven Touloumis, chief building inspector for Oak Park, the village did not issue any permits for new construction of a single family home in 2012. In 2011, the village issued just one.
Clifford Radatz, the building and zoning inspector for River Forest, says his village has issued just two permits for new construction this year, after approving three in 2011.
Radatz says part of the reason for the lack of new building has to do with the makeup of the villages. "It's a very built-up community. There are virtually no empty lots, so there's not a lot of new construction."
In order to build a new home, an older home usually needs to be torn down. While many perceive historic district guidelines as an impediment to tear downs, the reality is that River Forest has few obstacles, while Oak Park is limited by the boundaries of its historic districts.
Vacant lots may be few and far between, but older homes that are in bad shape and ripe for razing are not.
Developer Brandon Weiss, who is working a new construction on Jackson in River Forest, says his clients purchased the existing house with the intent to tear it down and build a new passive house on the site. The permitting process was easy to navigate.
"The existing home was in such disrepair, the neighbors were complaining about it all the time. And I think the village is very excited about our building a one-of-a-kind house here," he says. "A passive house is one that tries to use no outside electric or gas power while providing incredible indoor air quality. This level of green building is something new for this area."
Moroney purchased the vacant lot for his Greenfield project out of foreclosure. Another developer had razed an existing home but ran out of funding before getting construction off the ground. In spite of his success, Moroney admits that the current real estate market is challenging for those building new homes on speculation, or without an owner on hand to finance the construction.
"It's interesting that almost every new developer doing spec homes in the area is gone," he says. "They got burned. From the late 1990s to 2007, there were many developers doing new construction in the area, but almost all of them got caught up in the boom and ended up in bankruptcy."
Moroney adds that it's difficult not to get swept up in a financial pitfall, but managing costs effectively can lead to benefits for all the parties involved.
"You have to do it for the love of houses," he says. "It's such an uphill battle. Despite how hard it is, I've got lots of ideas for my next project."