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A year ago Carole Casey, a New Jersey teacher nearing retirement, toured North Shore condominiums as possible places to be close to her daughter, who lives in Winnetka.
Casey, 68, was not impressed until she came across Mallinckrodt in the Park, a 1917 convent that was preserved and renovated into 81 condominiums, one of the few new multifamily developments in the 19th Century village of Wilmette.
"I loved the historic restoration," said Casey. In October, she paid $465,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit in the building for buyers older than 62, developed by the Highland Park-based Pickus Cos. and Oculus Development LLC of Chicago.
"I like the high ceilings and big windows," she said.
The village, which required that the developer save the building, has preserved other hallmarks of its history.
It has 14 miles of brick-paved streets running through much of town east of Ridge Road, 1925 street lamps and a canopy of trees, some 200 years old, that line its quiet roads, explained Kathy Hussey-Arntson, director of the Wilmette Historical Museum.
While the older, east side has more of the historic elements that add charm to Wilmette, people throughout the village have supported the rules and ordinances that preserve the brick pavers, street lights and tree canopy, explained Lali Watt, a village trustee.
"Clearly many people, even those like me who live in newer West Wilmette, want these elements," she said. "Our village may not have the biggest, fanciest houses, but we value education; not just through school but through many other activities that go on like soccer and scouts. And people who value a child/family centered community also treasure the sense of history that keeps us grounded and provides continuity."
Quality of lifeMeanwhile, like many of the other more than 27,000 residents, Casey relishes getting outdoors.
"I'm taking tennis lessons and like the beach," she said.
The village crown jewels, water activities and other fresh air amusements, flourish as days get warmer and longer. Gillson Park on Lake Michigan with its tidy beach, sailing and summer camp; the outdoor pools at Centennial Park and the public Wilmette golf course all figured into Suzanne Lord's decision in February to buy a new, $1.4 million six-bedroom, six-bath house in central Wilmette.
"The outdoor and water-oriented recreation is part of the town's appeal," said Lord, a 46-year-old advertising executive who bought the house with her husband, Chris Rossi, a 46-year-old financial planner. They have five children.
"My 12-year-old daughter will attend Gillson day camp this summer and I'll investigate the golf course and French Market," she said. The market, next to the town center Metra commuter rail stop, sells locally grown produce, other edibles and crafts from April through October.
Of course, like many of the other affluent families that fill the village, Lord was also drawn by the excellent schools and upscale housing stock, from historic estates overlooking the lake in the east to smaller ranch houses interspersed with McMansions in the central and west sections. Located just 16 miles north of Chicago, she and Rossi also have easy access to their downtown offices.
For all of its prosperity, Wilmette prides itself on having a down-to-earth, small-town atmosphere. But some residents think that a larger supply of below-market rate housing would inject more economic diversity.
"For the last two years, there's been a lot of discussion about affordable housing because prices are too high for teachers and firefighters, and seniors get priced out," said Susan Morrison, 53, a 15-year Wilmette resident.
Earlier timesIn 1872, the village was incorporated with about 300 residents, a mix mostly of farmers and real estate speculators. With a rail link to Chicago, it lured those fleeing after the1871 Great Chicago Fire and others seeking vacation homes, said John Textor, a board member of the Wilmette Historical Museum.
By 1940, the population had grown to about 17,000 and from 1950 to 1960 to 28,000. "We haven't changed much since then," he said.
The low-slung brick buildings in the village center, like the town itself, have elements unchanged by time. The exterior of the Wilmette Theatre, for instance, looks much as it did when it opened in 1913 charging, 10 cents for a movie. Now adults pay $8 for a film and $10 to $22 for one of its live concerts or plays.
The main village retail district, the town center, has chain stores like Panera Bread cafe but is dominated by one-of-a-kind shops.
"Wilmette residents are very supportive and usually turn out to be friends sooner or later," said Joe Spera, owner of Al's Meat Market, where steaks and chops are cut to order.
Adding to the village's international charm is the filigree-domed Baha'i House of Worship, one of only seven Baha'i temples worldwide. Encircled by blossoms and fountains, it attracts international visitors year round.
Affordable unitsAmong its 10,000 dwelling units, 3,000 are in multifamily buildings but just 149 rental apartments and condominiums are classified as affordable. To meet the village criteria, a single person cannot earn more than $52,800 and either the applicant or applicant's child must be a village resident, explained Erika Fabisch, the village housing committee liaison.
So far, the units have been reserved for seniors who are at least 62 years old, like Margaret Skullion, 74, who a year ago bought one of 12 lower-priced units at Mallinckrodt paying $199,900 for a two-bedroom, two-bath flat.
But in a bid to expand the availability of more affordable housing, people of any age who meet the village income and residency requirements can qualify for eight affordable units being developed as part of a 62-unit condominium building planned for 611 Green Bay Rd. in the town center by a joint venture of Lincolnshire-based RIMCO Cos. and JDL Development Corp. of Chicago, Fabisch said.
The affordable units will sell for about $230,000 for a one-bedroom to $305,000 for a two-bedroom. The 54 market-rate units are priced from $399,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath to $1.15 million for a three-bedroom, 2- to 21/2-bath.
While some residents oppose adding affordable housing, the potential supply is also limited by the lack of land.
"The challenge is that the community is built out, and land values are high," said village trustee Watt. "Something has to come down for something to go up."
New constructionNew home construction, mostly in-fill houses built where others were torn down, this year will likely fall to 50 units compared to 77 in 2005, said John Adler, the village development director.
With new home sales down by about half this year, sale prices also fell 5 to 7 percent on average during the first quarter, said Daverille Sher, a Realtor at the Baird & Warner office based in Winnetka.
The slowdown has even hit the construction of homes that previously would have sold more quickly.
For instance, the Enclave at Sheridan Pointe is an unusually large development of 15-single family lots—with 11 in the southeast corner of Wilmette and four over the Evanston border. In 18 months, the developer, Red Seal Homes of Northbrook, has closed on one house and has buyer commitments on six more. "If we had opened in the summer of 2005, I suspect all the homes would have sold in the first weekend," said Brian Hoffman, Red Seal chief financial officer
At 905 Osage Lane in the north central Indian Hill Estates section of the village, Klein Design & Construction of Northbrook has had a 4-bedroom 41/2 bath house on the market for 14 months. It has cut the price to $2.275 million from $2.475 million, according to Sher.
There is easy access to transportation including the CTA, Metra, Sheridan Rd. and the Edens Expressway (Interstate-94).
EducationAlso key are the nine fine public schools from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
For instance, the New Trier High School District 203, which also serves Winnetka, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Northfield and parts of Glenview, in 2007 outperformed all of its suburban counterparts on the ACT tests.
Avoca School District 37 runs two small schools with grades kindergarten through eighth grade and the Wilmette School District 30 runs six schools with grades k-8.
The village also has a dozen private schools.
But one major attraction of the village are the private activities like block parties, BBQs and pot-luck dinners that help cultivate small town ties.
For 12 years Ken Morrison, 53, an attorney and the husband of Susan Morrison, has enhanced his town relationships by volunteering as a scout master.
"It's like I have 50 sons and I meet their parents, many of whom have become close friends," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun