Chicago developer Bob Angevin combined retail with rental property when he took over The Landmark building in Andersonville. He did the same at The Abbey condominiums in Hyde Park. So he was ready to venture into the Near West Side when the opportunity arose at 1401 W. Taylor St. Like the two other neighborhoods, he says Little Italy has a vibrancy about it.
That joie de vivre may be from the 25,000 students at the University of Illinois-Chicago. UIC anchors the east side of the neighborhood. The west end is marked by a laundry list of medical centers— Rush University Medical Center, Stroger Hospital of Cook County, University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital and the Veterans Administration West Side Hospital. Each day these medical centers draw 75,000 people into the immediate area.
Angevin, principal of Starbuck Capital LLC, says the 1401 building, which was built in 1895, hits both cylinders as it provides a rental and retail opportunity in the center of a neighborhood where demand for both comes from those neighboring employers and institutions.
Angevin is not alone. Developers and investors are taken with the Near West Side and the results are staggering. It is an area where everything old is new again.
Since the late 1990s, developments like University Village, University Commons and University Station began transforming the South Halsted corridor and Maxwell Street area with new construction, rehabs and the creation of vest pocket parks and other shared green spaces. These developments are changing the face of a neighborhood that hadn't seen growth in 50 years.
Christopher Provenzano, executive director of the University Village Association, holds a disk of the organization's development committee guidelines for Taylor Street. "It's a template for development geared for the street," he says then ticks off examples of how the group works with developers yet keeps the faith for the neighborhood.
"We have had significant changes in the neighborhood in the last eight years," Provenzano said. "The biggest change is the transformation from the Jane Addams homes into Roosevelt Square [under development] right on Taylor Street."
He says Roosevelt Square is the largest residential construction project ever for the Chicago Housing Authority.
Now in phase two of six phases, it will spread north to south from Taylor to 15th Streets, west to Ashland and east to Racine and Blue Island Avenues. Plans call for 2,441 affordable and mixed-income homes plus 40,000 square feet of retail space, including standalone stores. Planners expect to complete one phase every two years with a reported completion date of 2012 on the $750 million development.
When out-of-town guests visit the Provenzanos, he takes them on a driving tour of the neighborhood that starts with the parks.
Garibaldi Park boasts a children's playlot and pathways, while Arrigo Park's green space hosts children's soccer, flag football games and cricket under the watchful eye of Christopher Columbus' statue. Sheridan Park with its four baseball diamonds and indoor pool is the spot for organized Little League and summer programs.
Some residents say the view of the city skyline is best seen at Skinner Park, and the Fosco Park expansion includes a new softball field.
"The old South Water Market area is impressive," Provenzano says. He makes sure his group always stops at Halsted and Maxwell before visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, if only to see the bronze cast doors that were created in Italy and installed by Italian craftsman.
Provenzano's tours also hit University Commons, the South Water Market landmark buildings that house a modern lifestyle behind restored facades, and the Tri-Taylor Historic District. Tri-Taylor provides a wealth of older homes that remain single-family or have been converted to condominiums and upscale rentals.
Neighborhood Tours offers a walking tour of Little Italy, which is where Provenzano and friends usually end up for a meal.
Bounded by Western Avenue to the west, 16th Street to the south, the Eisenhower Expressway on the north and the Dan Ryan Expressway to the east, the Near West Side is accessible to anyone going in or out of town.
In the 12th District, property crime, such as theft from autos, construction sites and shops, is a problem. According to the Chicago Police Department's online CLEARpath crime report, larceny (57 incidents) outnumbered all other crimes combined (50) in the 12th District for the period of Feb. 25 through March 10.
"The 12th has programs for seniors, businesses, schools. In schools some of the programs we present are on bullying, anti-gang workshops. You name it, we have it," says Sgt. Rebecca Arguelles.
There is a wealth of public transportation via bus lines along the main arteries of Halsted, Racine, Ashland and Taylor. The Blue Line connects to the Loop, the northwest side and O'Hare International Airport.
As easy as it is to come and go, mostly people come and stay.
When UIC expanded in the Near West Side, Mary Jo Iacovetti's family relocated but always returned to visit the relatives that chose to stay in Little Italy. Twenty-eight years later, Iacovetti returned with her husband. "We came back to start our family," she said. The bond that she feels with the neighborhood is one that she wants for her daughter. "People live here, remain here for three and four generations. We came back and it was like we never left."
There are all types of homes on the Near West Side — single-family, townhomes, conversions and condominiums, according to Bill Altier, broker associate at Koenig & Strey GMAC Real Estate on Taylor Street.
"A home will stay in the family for generations," Altier explains. "Then a widow, an empty nester will want to sell. Or their children will want to cash out and a home will go on the market."
Altier was born in the neighborhood at Polk and Paulina. While his career took him other places in the country and other areas in Chicago, his affinity for the Near West Side brought him back to specialize in the area. "People still sit on porches in this neighborhood because that is what it is. A neighborhood.
"The strong employment centers make this area what it is. Little Italy is surrounded by employment," he added with a nod toward the Illinois Medical District and UIC.
He likens that impact on the community to that of hosting two Chicago Cubs games a day at Wrigley Field. "An afternoon game and then an evening game. What impact would that have on the surrounding area?"
"Plenty," he answers.
Altier says the area has seen very few foreclosures. "The economic engine from the surrounding employment pool keeps the neighborhood stable. Even though there is transition, property values in this area have held."
The availability of housing stock helps first-time homebuyers to move up. And to stay, Altier said. "Just a few years ago you would be surprised to see strollers on the street. Not any more, as renters buy their first home and then, with a family, move up and stay."
As bullish as Altier is on the neighborhood, is there anything that he would like to see developed?
A golf course, he says.