Debate Arises Over Rental Apartments in Downtown Winnetka

by Chicago Agent

Realtors are in debate over a proposed downtown development in Winnetka.

First American Properties is considering the construction of 39 rental apartments in downtown Winnetka. The area had formerly been part of a larger project to build 31 luxury condominium apartments at the site by New Trier Partners. Discussion concerning the switch from luxury owner-occupied condominium units to smaller rental apartments has caused agents to question the size of units that would rent in the village, and how it might affect Winnetka’s diversity.

According to Michael D’Onofrio, the village’s community development director, the apartments would range from 675 square feet to 1,300 square feet. In the original plan, the 31 condo units averaged 2,500 square feet, according to an article by the TribLocal.com.

Eve Bremen, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Winnetka, said she hasn’t studied the First American Properties plan, but commented in general about Winnetka’s housing market.

“The rental market in Winnetka is very strong right now. It’s probably stronger than it’s ever been,” Bremen said. By “rental,” she means single-family homes and not necessarily rental apartments like those outlined in First American Properties’ design. “I think the rental apartment situation hasn’t really been tested here,” Bremen said.

Steve Hudson, owner of Winnetka-based Hudson Company, echoed similar sentiments, but said he feels larger rental units will be more desirable than small ones. He was also concerned with the design’s inclusion of only one parking space per residential unit. That won’t likely cut it, even with the location’s proximity to the Metra station, Hudson said.

“I think I would err toward a larger footprint for the apartments themselves. I don’t think you’re going to rent a lot of studios there,” Hudson said. “I think you’re going to rent more two- and three-bedroom units.”

Cheryl Chambers, of Chambers Cross and Associates, said rentals might help diversify the village’s housing options. In previous years, seniors have looked to downscale after retirement but with a sagging housing market, renting may be a more attractive option, she said.

While there are some rental apartment options already, “they’re all old buildings though,” Chambers said. “So something new and up-to-date might appeal to older residents who would like to rent.”

Gail Lissner, vice president of Appraisal Research Counselors, which tracks multifamily housing in the Chicago area, confirmed that condominium developments are virtually non-existent in today’s market.

“If you want to do something in today’s market, the focus is on rental,” she said. “It’s very difficult to sell condominiums today. It’d be very difficult to do a ground-up construction of condominium project.”

Rental apartments “have relatively recently become much easier to finance, especially when you compare it to condominiums or units of individual ownership, so we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll get some interested offers to the development ideas,” said John Adler, Wilmette’s community development director.

Winnetka’s Village Council gave an unofficial green light on Jan. 10 to New Trier Partners to submit an amendment application that significantly alters its original design for a mixed-use development called “Winnetka East,” that included the Fell building, 511 Lincoln Ave.

That plan was given preliminary approval in 2009, but stalled in recent years before it reached the Village Council for final approval.

“We were hit by the economy,” said Steven M. Eldrod, attorney for New Trier Partners, in a statement. “The world was hit by the economy. We have found a way to make it work. We hope we can convince your subsidiary boards and ultimately you that this is the right thing for Winnetka.”

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