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Realestate

Location, affordable homes draw buyers to this north suburb

A lifelong Chicagoan, Alex Infante faced a big decision two years ago. He and his wife, Jackie, already had one toddler, plus intentions to have another baby, so his family would be outgrowing their Andersonville condo. But where should they buy their first house?

    Because both adults worked in the suburbs -- Jackie in Evanston, Alex in Glenview -- they initially considered Evanston. Then another location came up for consideration, a geographical midpoint between their commutes: "Skokie wasn't my first choice," Infante acknowledges, "but as I got to know more about it, I thought it would be a good move for us."

    While price was naturally a factor, a number of additional considerations tipped the scales in Skokie's favor. Infante, 37, says he and his wife were impressed with the school system and park districts. Demographics also mattered. "One of the things that's most important to me, being a minority myself, was having diversity for my kids, both ethnic and religious," says Infante, whose Cuban parents came here in 1971. With a large mix of immigrants -- in particular, more than one-fifth of Skokie's approximately 64,000 residents have Asian ancestry -- and a large Jewish population, "Skokie really sticks out in those aspects."

    Other sources agree. "My perception of Skokie, as judged by our student population, is that it's very diverse," says Vicki Giambrone, associate professor of anthropology and geography at Oakton Community College, whose Skokie campus recently expanded. "That diversity is reflected in our student clubs -- for example, the South Asian Club, the Muslim Student Club."

    There's a diversity in the feel of the city, too -- a mix of urban with plenty of green space. "It seems like there's always a park in walking distance," says Infante, who lives just blocks from two parks. "And while you still get the city vibe, I feel safe here. There's not a whole lot of crime that I'm aware of."

    Crime prevention officer Joe Marzigliano, who's been with the Skokie Police Department for 13 years, says the type of crime typical to the village includes burglaries and fights. "With the Orchard in town, we have retail theft," Marzigliano says, referring to the upscale outdoor Westfield Old Orchard mall, which draws "100,000 people, easy" on a daily basis. Also, he says, "We have a larger Jewish population, and with that we have a few hate crimes" -- usually anti-Semitic graffiti -- "but nothing on a regular basis."

    Location is another advantage for Skokie, which shares part of its southern border with Chicago. "A lot of people want to be close to the city," says Karl Vogel, a real estate agent with @Properties in Evanston, due east of Skokie. "The Edens [Expressway] is right there, which is super convenient for getting downtown. Also, it's one of the few suburbs that actually has an "L" -- you take the Yellow Line right into the city."

    Of course, as in most communities during this recession, home sales are slow. "It's a total buyer's market," Vogel says. He reports that Skokie has 277 homes currently for sale, with only 45 under contract. The median sale price of homes sold in the last six months is $275,000. "What's interesting about that is: It mirrors the entry-level home buyer market price," Vogel says. "Skokie is the perfect place for a first-time home buyer."

    Although its history as a town stretches back to the late 1800s, the development of Skokie -- called Niles Center until 1940 -- really kicked into high gear during the post-World War II boom. "It's got a lot of 1950s and 1960s homes," Vogel says. "But when the market was hot earlier this decade, people were taking little ranch homes and making them McMansions."

    Infante says he sees some of those large new homes unoccupied, another sign of the recession. Still, Skokie residents haven't felt the effects as strongly as some other communities. For one thing, "Property taxes are low, compared to [neighboring communities] Evanston or Wilmette," Vogel says. "You've got Old Orchard mall and all the retail; those sales taxes offset the property taxes."

    That upscale outdoor mall -- now named Westfield Old Orchard -- makes Skokie a huge shopping destination for thousands of area residents. But the opportunity cost affects downtown Skokie. "Having a huge shopping mall in your town is going to take the focus away from your downtown retail district," Vogel says. "It's a catch-22."

    "Everything centers around the Old Orchard shopping mall," agrees Infante. "A lot of restaurants aren't the mom-and-pop variety, but more of the chains. I really wish that were better."

    Looking into the future, that might be starting to change. The CTA's Yellow Line (once known as the "Skokie Swift"), a five-mile shuttle from Howard Street in Chicago to Dempster Street in Skokie, never made any stops along the way. But this spring, the village will break ground on a new Yellow Line station at Oakton Street. Once completed, the $20 million project will provide more access to the downtown area.

    So in a number of ways, Skokie is riding out the recession in better shape than some of its neighbors. Certainly, there's no shortage of things to do in the village. The park district offers some low-cost options like the Emily Oaks Nature Center and The Exploritorium, an indoor park and learning center. Meanwhile, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center opened last April, the latest of Skokie's cultural attractions. Its $10 admission fee for adults makes it one of the best bargains for a museum in the Chicago area.

    Artistic director BJ Jones feels similarly about Northlight Theatre, the Chicago area's biggest non-profit theater outside the city, where a five-show subscription can cost as little as $99. Housed inside Skokie's impressive North Shore Center for Performing Arts, Northlight defied the odds in a recession, Jones reports, when their subscriptions went up this year. The diverse line-up of shows didn't rely on the typical revivals of many suburban theaters, but on newer works such as "Grey Gardens," an edgy musical about Jackie Kennedy's real-life reclusive relatives, and "Po-Boy Tango," which blends African American and Chinese cultures through a shared love of cuisine.

    Such programming works because Skokie, says Jones, is "the U.N. of suburbs, and that makes it rich and vital and interesting."

The lowdown

    Located 16 miles northwest of the Loop and once dubbed "the world's largest village," this near-north suburb grew in two major spurts, one prior to the Great Depression and the other after World War II. Today one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse communities in Illinois, Skokie's 64,000 residents enjoy relatively low property taxes (frozen since 1990) and more affordable homes than in other North Shore suburbs.

Things to consider

    UPSIDE: Skokie is accessible via I-94, and it's one of the very few suburbs with CTA "L" service (the about-to-expand Yellow Line). Retail activity abounds at the Westfield Old Orchard mall, and the village has become a cultural hub thanks to the North Shore Center for Performing Arts, park district venues like the Exploritorium and the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which opened last spring.

    DOWNSIDE: Skokie's downtown commercial district has atrophied over the decades as chain stores at the mall sucked all the dollars away. Crime rates appear high relative to most other suburbs, largely due to retail theft at Old Orchard.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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