An Opportunity for Density in Every City

At the moment, it’s not much to look at. Some dirt and a dream. But if the dream pans out – and it’s quite a dream – it could help awaken a sleepy community. And if you follow its lead, the ideas here could kick-start your community, too.

Just outside Chicago lies Skokie, Ill., a mid-sized suburb (pop. 65,000) with older housing stock, good schools, some new public transportation options and a lot of promise. It has foodie options with Michelin-rated and critically-acclaimed restaurants. A new regional tech center, the Illinois Science and Technology Park, chose Skokie as its home. It’s also the only Illinois city on our ranking of the Top 100 Best Places to Live.

A rendering of the proposed homes on Floral Ave., in Skokie, Ill.

A rendering of the proposed homes on Floral Avenue in Skokie, Ill.

And now, a small residential home builder is hoping to help kick-start Skokie with an interesting new development called Floral Avenue. First, a little back-story.

Skokie had some underperforming parcels of land located near the main intersection of the historic downtown. Some dilapidated homes, a bowling alley and an auto repair shop along with related parking lots were basically just taking up space. The village acquired these with the intent of land-banking them until a suitable use was found. The idea was that it would become some low-density mixed-use combination of rentals, townhomes and retail. But the city leaders heard about a nearby development in Libertyville, Ill., that was taking a very different approach. They toured the area and invited the developer, StreetScape, to come visit Skokie.

Now those parcels are going to become 25 or so single-family homes. They’ll be built in the New Urbanism model with wide sidewalks and front porches to encourage walking and neighborhood interaction. They’ll be packed in on small city-like lots, but without sharing walls like a townhome development would. The designs include sustainable technologies, and the developer is working with executives at the various manufacturers to use these homes as a test bed for new products and ideas.

The village is so keen on the development that it’s entered into a somewhat unusual business arrangement to get it built. StreetScape will buy each lot for the Village as it’s sold, meaning that they don’t have to have the capital to purchase all of the land upfront. Mr. Thompson said that while it clearly benefits the developer, the Village likes the deal, too, because it continues to own the property in the meantime. Nearly a quarter of the lots are already under contract despite the fact that ground hasn’t been broken on any of the properties yet.

The dream part is how this could relate to your city:

The hope is that, as the families move in, they’ll be doing so because they buy into the vision. They’ll do so because they’re looking for a different kind of development (even in the suburbs) and a different kind of home. They’ll do so because they want the nearby schools and transit. They’ll do so because they like the high-walkability and the chance to patronize local merchants. They’ll do so because, like two-thirds of Americans, they believe investing in creating exactly this kind of community is a better way to grow the economy than recruiting companies.

That will help the downtown continue to regain its strength. “People are starting to think of the downtown district in ways they never have before,” Tom Thompson, Skokie’s Economic Development Coordinator told me. “It’s a validation of what we’ve been doing.”

From the village perspective this development will likely be a better tax generator than the previous occupants of the space. The homes are also a little higher-end than other properties nearby, but if this development is successful, it could elevate property values around it, too. The developer’s previous project in Libertyville just had its first resale of a home at a 50 percent profit, according to StreetScape’s John McLinden. He expects a healthy, if not quite that healthy, return here, too.

I spent a little over an hour hearing Mr. McLinden’s pitch, and I’m sold enough to keep an eye on what happens in my neighboring town. But the most important thing he told me came as we were winding down the conversation.

Every city has parcels like this,” he said.

That got me thinking. One thing I hear a lot from mayors and city managers is that their cities are “built-out.” It’s a very city way of thinking, but as we’ve written before, cities now can, and need to, think differently. They need to think like marketers. No marketer would ever say, “We sell plenty of product. Who cares if there’s more demand?”

No, a marketer would find any way to increase capacity and get that demand met.

This development works like that. It takes underutilized space and converts it into highly-valuable space – by adding urban density in a suburban setting. It’s happening in Skokie, and it could just as easily happen in your town. I’m sure Mr. McLinden would love to help, but more than that, he says, he just wants to see cities developing the kind of housing that more and more people are looking for. It’s good for the Earth (remember: sustainable), it’s good for the market and it’s good for the tax base.

As long as the dream comes true. We’ll keep an eye on it and keep you posted.

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