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Living downtown...in the 'burbs

Downtown Arlington Heights

This post was written by Christina Loranz, MPC research assistant.

About 15 years ago, many Chicago suburbs started seeing renewed growth and investment in their downtowns that continues today, though the rate of growth has slowed down in the last couple years, for sure.  During the real estate boom of the ‘90s and early 2000s, condo buildings sprung up and started filling with young singles and couples, as well as downsizing empty nesters. 

Several suburbs now have some high-rise condo buildings, usually with retail on the first floor.  Evanston, for instance, has five of the 15 tallest buildings in the suburbs (though two of them were built before 1980), ranging from 18 to 28 stories.  Arlington Heights’ condos top out at 15 stories, and Oak Park recently approved a proposed 20-story tower, that some residents opposed.  In some cases, these developments have sparked protest from residents worried about the increased density and congestion, parking issues, and possibly losing the small-town feel of their community. 

However, well-planned density can come with lots of benefits.  Evanston’s, Oak Park’s and Arlington Heights’ historic downtowns each have seen some revitalization as consumer demand rose for homes within walking distance of transit, shops, and other services.  The increased density in these downtowns led to new stores and restaurants opening, which have drawn people living outside the immediate area to rediscover their “new” downtown.  These downtowns now have more choices of places to eat, shop and live, all within walking distance of each other and of mass transit, than they did in 1990. 

What’s more, generally speaking, high-density suburban downtowns can actually reduce traffic and parking problems facing the region.  According to the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida, people living within a half-mile of transit average 44 percent fewer vehicle trips than those living further away.  A recent study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Penny Wise Pound Fuelish, reports that Chicago-area households located in mixed-use, compact neighborhoods average $3,110 in annual transportation savings over households in traditional suburban settings. 

Although the current economic climate has caused some of this growth to slow down, the trend is not going away.  The Center for Transit-Oriented Development says that the supply for housing near transit has not been keeping up with the demand.  

Growth will happen, so why not encourage it in well-planned centers with connections to jobs and services, rather than allow it to expand the footprint of the metropolitan area, putting further stress on our planet and pocketbooks?

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