Urban lifestyle a big draw for buyers in West Loop

In the West Loop, there's a touch of the Left Bank in the number of fine art galleries. The rattle of New York echoes along Lake Street boutiques, and a slice of New Orleans thrives among top-drawer restaurants.

But the sight of the Sears Tower reminds you that you are in Chicago. The view is available gratis to urbanites choosing to live or work in the neighborhood loosely defined as west of Halsted and east of Ashland streets, south of Grand Avenue and north of the Eisenhower Expressway.

Patrick McAloon says the Sears Tower is the point of reference for home buyers in this area. "People want to see the city when they wake up in the morning," he says, adding that the sight of the tower provides just what they are looking for.

McAloon, broker-owner and team leader at Keller-Williams West Loop, has lived and worked in the South Loop and West Loop for 28 years. The biggest changes he has seen are the influx of people and businesses. In addition to empty nesters, young singles and couples, smaller firms are leasing spaces in loft-like buildings. "They just walk four blocks west to work (from the Ogilvie Metra station) instead of four blocks east," he said.

The West Loop is filled with major attractions like Harpo Studios, Hubbard Street Dance Co., and a new eight-screen movie complex from Sundance Cinemas breaking ground at West Jackson and Aberdeen.

The area boasts 19 fitness centers, 34 art galleries, 18 not-for-profit organizations and 16 real estate-related offices interspersed with six pet care shops, three ticket brokers and the Museum of Holography. A Jewel-Osco store is slated for the north end of the area.

But it is still home to meat packers that helped make Chicago famous — hogs heading to slaughter can still be seen in some areas — produce wholesalers and factories, all muscling for position with residential real estate projects.

The West Loop is a condo market. Any single-family homes are usually townhomes, although some single-family homes can be found along Jackson, just east of Ashland and along the side streets—even in the middle of the mixed-use neighborhood.

"We have a mix of retail, commerce and industrial history living side by side. You pull into this neighborhood and realize what it is like to live in the city," Eric Sedler says. "It is concentrated, accessible, and I love it." Sedler is president of the West Loop Community Organization.

In the mid-1990s, he was among the singles that flocked to the area when the first converted residential lofts became available. Two lofts later, he and his wife, Marla, and their two children are part of the burgeoning demographic of families who call the West Loop home.

Even with the explosion of new construction and rehabbed buildings, Sedler doesn't label what is going on in the West Loop as gentrification.

"We are in a process, but it is to 'build' a neighborhood by adding parks, services and amenities for people who live and work here," he explains.

Sedler says crime in the West Loop is among the lowest in the city and most offenses are property crimes, typically theft of valuables from vehicles.

Despite the nationwide housing downturn, Marty Phelan, a real estate agent for Keller-Williams, says condos continue to sell well in the neighborhood. The average sales price for the 136 two-bedroom, two-bath condos sold in the past six months was $376,500. They were sold in an average of 130 days, he said.

One service the community organization is backing is the reopening of an elevated train stop at Morgan and Lake Street. "It is just a matter of time," Sedler says. But for residents who work in the Loop or the financial district, it is a walkable distance. From the corner of Randolph and Morgan, it is a 10-minute walk to Wacker Drive. And there is bus service via the Madison Avenue bus and on Jackson for those who need to get to offices in the Near North.

A new two-acre park will fill a square block—Peoria to Sagamon and Adams to Monroe. "It was 10 years in the making," says Sedler. A contemporary yet tranquil design, it will be dog friendly, and include a playground.

Existing parks include Union Park and Skinner Park, which is undergoing a $1 million rehab that should be completed around the same time that the Mark T. Skinner School reopens for the 2009-10 school year.

Skinner's campus was closed to allow reconstruction using about $42 million in tax increment financing. Upon completion, the school will have space for 740 students.

Residents with infants and toddlers welcomed the Montessori Academy of Chicago, which opened in February 2007. Within a few months of opening the school, owner-director Fosca Shackleton White and her husband, Bill, moved into the Chelsea Townhome development, which is within walking distance of the school.

"I grew up in SoHo [New York City], and I liked the similarities between the neighborhoods," says Fosca Shackleton White. "There's a good feeling, a family-friendly feeling to it.

If anyone is looking for Shackleton White on a Saturday morning, go no further than the wholesale markets near Randolph when many meat packers and produce distributors open their doors to sell to the public.

It is the opposite for Bruno Abate, owner of Follia Restaurant, 953 W. Fulton Market St. Weekends find that street quieter because many of the surrounding businesses are closed. And he relishes the break from the noisy hustle and bustle.

Abate opened his Italian restaurant six years ago. The West Loop reminded him of New York as well. "The history of this neighborhood is palatable," he says. "In New York, the meatpacking district has lost its meat packers, but not here. During the week, I can still see pigs on the streets," he says.

After eight years with the community organization, executive director Martha Goldstein admits she still loves the aroma of toast wafting from the Bay's English Muffins factory on Jackson Boulevard and the smell of chocolate permeating the air from Blommer Chocolate Co. at DesPlaines and Kinzie.

Food always has been a draw to the West Loop—first the wholesalers, then restaurants and food events like Taste of Randolph.

"We are not an obvious pedestrian hub because the major streets are so spread out and each has its own identity. But we are filling in," she says.

"We want to grow but maintain the area's distinctiveness," Goldstein explains. "Mixed use has a good name in the West Loop."