Downtown Elmhurst is filled with restaurants, boutique shops and bars. There's a movie theater, Metra train stop and even a comic-book shop.
"Being downtown in Elmhurst is great," said Sluga, an agent with RE/MAX Action in Lisle, Ill. "I've sold many condos and townhouses in downtown Elmhurst over the last 20 years. People want to live downtown. You can see all the people getting off the train at the end of the day and walking to where they live. It’s a nice way to commute. Having train service makes a big difference.”
Sluga is far from alone in noticing the stronger pull of vibrant, walkable downtown areas. Research shows that homes located near popular downtown areas fetch higher prices when they're sold because buyers are more interested in condos, townhouses and single-family homes located either in or within walking distance of downtown areas that have a lot of foot traffic.
This trend is strong throughout the Chicagoland area and shows no sign of slowing.
A National Trend
Last year, the Brookings Institution published a report on the strength of what it referred to as walkable neighborhoods. The report's authors, Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program, and Mariela Alfonzo, a non-resident special guest of the same program, define walkable neighborhoods as those that allow residents to meet all their daily needs by walking, biking or taking public transportation.
In a walkable neighborhood, residents can walk to a grocery store to buy the spaghetti sauce they need for dinner. They can stroll to a train or bus stop to get to their office each morning. And if they feel like taking in a show, trying a new restaurant or stopping by a bar to hear a local band, they are able to walk or bike to it.
Walkable neighborhoods are often downtown areas, much like the ones that can be found in such Chicago suburbs as Highland Park, Geneva, Elmhurst, Clarendon Hills and Evanston, Ill.
The Brookings report, "Walk this Way: The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C.," ranked neighborhoods in the Washington D.C. area in terms of walkability, giving them a score of one to five. For every step up the walkability ladder, home values rose by a rather impressive $82 a square foot.
Carrie Kenna, an agent with RE/MAX Properties in Western Springs, Ill., has seen firsthand how much value a strong downtown that offers restaurants, shops, theaters and public transportation can add to a home.
"It adds so much value to the house to be close to downtown," Kenna said. "There are the social, convenience and entertainment reasons. With shops to visit and restaurants to dine at, downtowns are thriving areas that buyers want to be near."
There are several such areas in Kenna's market. She sells homes in Clarendon Hills, Ill., where the downtown is enjoying a renaissance. She also sells in Hinsdale and LaGrange, Ill., two communities that have long enjoyed strong downtowns.
Kenna estimates that almost all her recent sales in Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills have been near the downtown district.
"We are seeing many people returning to the suburbs after having lived in Chicago as young adults. In the city, they could walk to the El and restaurants,"
The public-transit factor is especially important, Kenna said. Residents want the freedom to be able to hop on a Metra train and be in downtown Chicago just by walking from their homes. Even smaller downtowns can provide a bump in interest to the homes located near them.
Among the communities where Mary Opfer, a broker with RE/MAX Unlimited Northwest in Crystal Lake, Ill., sells homes is Cary, Ill., a small town with a compact but charming downtown that has plenty of history behind it. The area features a coffee shop, Italian restaurant, offices and a bar and grill famous for its hamburgers. The original train station, built in 1863, still serves residents going to and from Chicago.
“Even though it’s not especially big, our downtown area draws a fair amount of interest from prospective home buyers who like the idea of being near the conveniences it offers,” said Opfer. “They appreciate the fact that it’s cozy and has that familiar hometown atmosphere, plus they can get to downtown Chicago quickly and easily.”
Kenna noted that the popularity of living in or near suburban downtowns is a self-reinforcing phenomenon.
“Greater population density in and around downtowns is good for the business community, so new restaurants and other businesses will continue to pop up. And that can make the downtown even more attractive as a place to live,” she said.