In 2013, when Oak Park resident Judith Alexander joined forces with a few others to form the North Avenue Zoning and Development Advisory Committee, it was because there was plenty of community concern about the busy corridor between Oak Park and Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood.
She cites the continued decline of the street as the impetus for forming the organization, today incorporated as The North Avenue District, Inc. The board was intentionally made up of half Oak Park and half Chicago residents, because “our business district straddles both sides,” Alexander said. “We have common interests.”
Pre-pandemic, North Avenue was facing many of the same challenges that other business districts faced; namely, a rash of commercial vacancies — both businesses and offices — due to internet shopping and the rise of work-from-home jobs.
Seeking to understand the best path forward for the district, the group applied for a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning grant, which resulted in a 2018 Urban Land Institute report on revitalization strategies for the North Avenue corridor.
Chief among the recommendations? Think residential.
In fact, the report stated, “Replacing vacant and underutilized buildings and sites on North Avenue with new residential development will energize the corridor and add to the potential customer base of area businesses helping them thrive.”
Today, even in the midst of a pandemic, there are no fewer than six multifamily developments under way on both the Oak Park and Chicago sides of North Avenue.
Alexander says there are a few reasons residential development makes sense here. The corridor has easy access to transportation. Alexander points out that multiple bus lines provide easy access to the CTA Green Line and to Metra. North Avenue also provides convenient access to shopping and services.
Lastly, Alexander says residential development on North Avenue is relatively affordable. While the corridor is close to downtown Chicago, it is much less expensive than many city neighborhoods.
She also points out that property acquisition costs on North Avenue are low relative to the city. She tempers this by pointing out that apartment rentals in Oak Park can be expensive, since most developers hold the buildings, and property taxes in Oak Park are high, but she thinks those high Oak Park taxes might make apartments in the area easier to rent.
“Property taxes make Oak Park expensive; they limit the appreciation of a home,” Alexander said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard of people renting on North Avenue rather than buying, because they were worried that buying wouldn’t get them a good return on their investment, but they wanted to put their kids in Oak Park schools.”
According to the North Avenue District newsletter, new apartment rentals on North Avenue have been receiving a lot of interest during the pandemic. North Edge, a seven-unit development at 6603-6609 W. North Ave. developed by Jade Sky Real Estate, was fully leased within two weeks of receiving an occupancy permit.
At press time, CMV Development’s 6555 W. North Avenue, a 10-unit luxury apartment building had one, two-bedroom unit remaining available for $2,775 a month.
The Oak Park Edge is another luxury apartment building at 6031-35 W. North Ave., slated to be ready for occupancy in August. Offering 18 two-bedroom, two-bathroom units, it received 11 inquiries in three days.
Share Heilala of Jade Sky Real Estate says that the North Edge is her first multifamily development, but she’s encouraged by the smooth process of building and leasing on North Avenue.
She said she wasn’t sure what role the pandemic would play when she started marketing the units in April, but ultimately, it seemed to work in their favor.
“Some tenants didn’t want to be in high rises after the pandemic,” Heilala said. “You might be paying a lot there for amenities you can’t even use.”
She adds that some were looking to avoid shared elevator spaces, stating, “All of our units have private entrances.”
The building consists of four townhome units, which rent for $4,000 a month, and three loft-style apartments with monthly rents from $1,500 to $2,900.
Heilala, whose own family will be living in one of the units, says she thinks the fact that all of the units came with parking was another reason they rented so quickly. Heilala, who partnered with general contractor Altierra and architect William Foellmer, says their project was the first new apartment development to get under way on North Avenue.
Being the first was a bit nerve-wracking, she admits, but the success of the building and the new developments that are planned for the corridor make it all worthwhile.
“We’re happy it leased so well, and we’re really excited about what’s coming,” Heilala said.
There are at least three more apartment developments in various stages planned for the corridor. A development at 6545 W. North Ave., the former site of Mercado Clinic, is moving forward with construction of rental units. The Chicago Zoning Board recently approved development plans for the vacant bank building at 6700 W. North Ave., and 7000 W. North Avenue just received approval for development as well.
Dan Pontarelli is the developer for 7000 W. North Ave., a 1968 building wrapped in glass that he says “does lend itself to that Jetsons kind of look.”
He plans to maintain the glass façade of the building while gutting the interior to create 16 ADA-accessible studio apartments for active seniors. A developer for over 30 years, Pontarelli hopes to get construction started sometime in 2020.
All of the units will average 700 square feet and rent for $1,500. The studios will include elevator access, covered parking and state-of-the-art mechanicals and finishes.
Pontarelli says the ground floor will continue to offer retail space, and there is the added bonus of the parcel to the west, which he is looking to develop for a possible retail and or café tenant.
For Alexander, all of the development is a real positive for the district, which continues to await construction commencement on the approved redevelopment plans for the Sears site on Harlem and North Avenue.
“We believe these apartments will be the engine for revitalization,” Alexander said. “All of the new people will be customers for the current great businesses. We also hope it encourages some new businesses to come here and current landlords to spruce up existing buildings. Residential development has been going so well, especially during a pandemic. People can think of us a little differently now.”