When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in first shelter-in-place orders being enacted nearly a year ago, Kinzie Builders was in the early stages of constructing two new apartment buildings – the 97-unit 10 North Main in Mount Prospect, Illinois, and the 48-unit Avere on Duane in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
Both projects were smaller than two other communities we had recently completed, and they offered a well-rounded suite of amenities – there was nothing bloated about the buildings, just good solid design, high-end finishes and a great location. But as the pandemic began to stretch out before us, we quickly realized how well-poised these buildings were going to be as many people were making pivots in choosing where and how to live.
While demand for suburban apartments was on the rise prior to COVID-19, the pandemic not only increased the number of renters ready to make a move from the city to the suburbs, it also spurred more interest from developers looking to broaden their portfolio outside the urban core. And now, even as restrictions caused by the pandemic ease, many of the reasons renters and developers rediscovered the suburbs will remain relevant.
Now that companies and workers have experienced the advantages of remote work, and invested in the infrastructure to make it possible, the expectation is that many will choose a partial work-from-home schedule, even after the pandemic subsides. For those who work in the city center, a commute that takes them to the office a few days a week is much more palatable than one that requires more than an hour of daily travel. Prior to the pandemic, Chicago commuters had some of the longest travel times in the country, with an average one-way travel time to work of 34.4 minutes, or 31 percent above the national average of 26.1 minutes.
Because suburban apartments tend to have larger floor plans, creating a work-from-home space is often easier. In addition, many new suburban developments mimic the amenities of large Class A city buildings, but on a smaller scale. This gives residents more amenity spaces suited to remote work.
Welcome to hipsturbia
For the past few years, suburban villages have been investing in their downtowns, recognizing the benefits of offering residents a blend of the most desirable features of urban and suburban living. The restaurants, coffee shops, bars and entertainment that drew renters to the city can now be found just blocks or even steps away from their suburban homes. Our project at 10 North Main in Mount Prospect is a great example of this. As part of the village’s Prospect and Main TIF program – which includes several other projects intended to revitalize the downtown area, including a new public park – this building reflects a new level of energy that is coming to many suburban downtowns.
Have your cake and eat it, too
It used to be quite common that once the kids were grown and out of the house, empty-nesters would be torn on whether to stay in a too-big home to remain close to their children, grandchildren and friends or to sell the suburban home and escape to city to enjoy the high-end design and maintenance-free lifestyle that so many new-construction rentals offered. But with the rise of sophisticated new rental buildings in suburban downtown, active adults can enjoy the best of both worlds. They can downsize in style to a highly appointed rental close to all their comforts while also enjoying a vibrant walkable urban lifestyle.
The same goes for Gen Z or Millennials who want to work in the suburbs and enjoy the freedom and flexibility that renting offers. Because of the robust downtown community so many suburbs are creating, these groups no longer need to suffer a reverse commute to have access to social opportunities and nightlife.
The Goldilocks effect
Let’s face it, the pandemic has made us all more aware of how physically close we are to someone, how crowded a room might be and how much space we need to live comfortably. Therefore, mid-sized developments are well-suited to deliver on the demand for a home that’s not too big or too small but is just right.
- Lower density. The “boutique” size of these buildings is seen as a benefit through the lens of social distancing. In a smaller building, there are fewer people coming and going, taking the elevator and using amenity spaces.
- Right-sized for the right amenities. While not so large as to feel impersonal, mid-rises can still accommodate the amenities that attract renters to so many luxury city-center towers, like fitness centers, outdoor entertaining spaces and indoor lounges that serve as an extension of residents’ individual apartments. These spaces facilitate the kind of community building that helps with resident retention, and property managers have demonstrated that even with the limitations of social distancing, it’s still possible to create community in amenity spaces. In fact, one might go so far as to say that amenity spaces and programming help residents feel less isolated during times like these.
- Fit the scale of the community. New-construction development always meets some level of skepticism from the surrounding community. Mid-rise buildings put less of a burden on village resources during construction and fit in architecturally with a typical suburban downtown. For example, at four stories and with an exterior design that reflects the character of Glen Ellyn, Avere on Duane suits its surroundings, while also bringing 48 new one- and two-bedroom apartments to village residents.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
With more suburban municipalities interested in diversifying their housing stock to address the needs of a wider range of residents, mid-sized buildings can go a long way in helping to improve a neighborhood and keep residents from leaving because they now have new housing options. Because they feature a range of apartment sizes, mid-sized developments offer a housing alternative that does not compete, but instead complements existing townhome and single-family homes. These smaller multifamily buildings are also a smart way to enhance a village streetscape that has underutilized or empty lots. In addition, mid-sized rental buildings typically bring welcome tax revenue to a village without putting a burden on school systems.
We are putting the finishing touches on 10 North Main and Avere on Duane in the first quarter of this year, just in time for the spring market. If the conversations we are having with developers and the RFPs coming across our desks are any indication, we’ll see these types of projects continue to rise throughout Chicago’s suburbs for years to come.
Steve Spinell is principal with Chicago’s Kinzie Real Estate Group. He spearheads business development and directs the planning and management of the company’s development services. He has more than 28 years of real estate development and contracting experience.