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Office, residential developers tap into liquid assets


CHICAGO -- Water, water everywhere. In real estate developments all over the Chicago area, water is cascading, flowing, rippling, reflecting -- and selling.

Developers of residential and commercial projects have been increasingly cashing in on the ambience of water. They say it helps in selling homes, leasing office parks, improving employees' morale, creating a positive image and beautifying the sites.

"Developments with water sell better than those without," said housing market analyst Tracy Cross, president of Northfield, Ill.-based Tracy Cross & Associates.

Mr. Cross noted, though, that water features are increasing not because of demand by homebuyers, but rather because of wetlands legislation that forces developers to provide for storm-water storage on the property.

He added that water features at a subdivision entrance can enhance the image of the community, and lots bordering water command a premium of about 10 percent.

"Water is a great focal point for a development," said Mark Kurensky, landscape architect with Schaumburg, Ill.-based Otis Associates Inc. "People like looking at water. Like a fire, it's fascinating and ever-changing."

Mr. Kurensky noted, though, that the recession slowed the flood of new water features. He said the cost of a small fountain may be only $3,000 to $5,000, but large installations with pumps and landscaping can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Water features are still being installed at special niche projects and upper-end residential developments, but not as much in the affordable-home market," he said.

Water is a powerful force in office developments, too.

"People prefer to be at a project with a water feature," said Jim Dorsey, senior vice president of Koll Management Services, the agent for Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, developer of 233-acre Conway Park in Lake Forest, Ill.

The office park, which is more than half developed, has four lakes and one more is planned. Mr. Dorsey listed other benefits of water: "It's peaceful, dramatic and doesn't have to be mowed."

Mary Knowland, property manager at Conway Park, added that the tranquil effect of water "makes people enjoy coming to work."

"Water has been a big selling point here," she said.

Still, while turning on the water can be profitable, it is also expensive. "We've spent a fortune on the water at Conway Park," Mr. Dorsey noted.

In some ways, man-made water features can be an improvement over those created by Mother Nature.

Ponds in the wild can be stagnant, algae-clogged mosquito breeders. Water engineers attack that problem in a variety of ways.

One method is aeration, which uses bubblers and sprays to keep the water moving. In addition, ponds are often stocked with fish that eat algae.

The latest trend involves creating a new version of "Swan Lake." Swans, which eat algae as well as fast-growing water plants, are being used at residential and office projects.

A pair of swans was purchased last year for the 4-acre lake next to the Moore Business Forms headquarters at Conway Park.

"Most people like swans. They're beautiful birds," said Terry Ciochocki, customer service representative for Church Landscape, which takes care of the swans for Moore Business Forms.

Bruce Church, president of Church Landscape, said his firm is managing three swan lakes and four more are in the offing.

"Water features are becoming more popular because of mandatory water retention requirements. But instead of hiding the water, developers make it more visible and turn it into a positive benefit by adding fountains, waterfalls and flowers around the ponds. A lot of commercial sites have grass and trees, but water gives a distinctive image," Mr. Church said.

"We built an onshore feeder and an island platform for the swans at MoBusiness Forms," Ms. Ciochocki said. Besides their aesthetic appeal, swans also chase the geese away, she said.

Roswell Van Deusen, who supplies the swans for Church Landscape, explained the problem with geese: "There are a lot of non-migratory geese in the Chicago area. Their droppings and feathers create a nuisance. Swans, which are very territorial, will drive off the geese."

Mr. Van Deusen, owner of Pitchfork Valley Farm in Delton, Mich., added that "swans make a body of water come alive."

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