Arlington Heights and Evanston are the Chicago suburbs most ready for the future, and other towns should borrow from their playbooks, a new book says.
In the past couple of decades, the two towns have intentionally paired up mass transportation hubs with buildings taller than the suburban norm, according to Kheir Al-Kodmany, an architect and local professor who wrote "New Suburbanism: Sustainable Tall Building Development."
"When you put those two elements together, you create a mini-downtown where people can live and go to restaurants—and they can get to work without taking a car out into the traffic headache we have all around us," said Al-Kodmany, 53, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The book, written for urban planners and academics, was published this spring by Routledge.
With a rush hour that now "starts at 2 and goes to 7:30," he said, "anything you do that makes living without a car easier is going to enhance your town." Both Arlington Heights and Evanston are served by Metra lines whose riders get to avoid the nation's most bottlenecked highway, a 12-mile stretch of the Kennedy Expressway.
While combatting the soul-deadening effects of traffic is key to Al-Kodmany's approach, his embrace of the two suburbs isn't only about traffic. In the book and in an interview, the former Skidmore Owings & Merrill architect explains that putting tall buildings around transit centers in suburban cores has multiple benefits.
Among them: It prevents suburban growth from sprawling farther beyond the horizon, creates vibrant demand for businesses and restaurants in the cores, and broadens a town's housing menu by adding fashionable condos like those that empty-nesters and singles often move to the big city to get.
In Arlington Heights, the cluster of condo and apartment buildings that have sprung up around the main Metra station "appeal to so many different kinds of people who want to live here but don't want a house," said Century 21 Affiliated agent Sharon Molnar. Empty-nesters, single professionals who work in downtown Chicago but have personal ties to the suburb, and recently divorced people have been among the clients she has worked with on condo buys in town, she said.
Molnar is now listing a seventh-floor. two-bedroom unit priced at $679,000. It's less than a block from the Metra station.
While the traditional image of suburban living would say that's too close to a train station for a luxury-level price, Al-Kodmany thinks it's just right for a generation that's fed up with traffic and wants to cut the costs of having a car.
The key is to have housing within a quarter-mile of trains, he said. "That's usually how far people are willing to walk."
CHICAGO HAS 'BEEN BEHIND'
His book holds up the suburban areas around Washington and Toronto as doing the best job in the past few decades of connecting transit with tall buildings. In Chicago, he said, "we have been behind." One reason is that many suburbs were originally laid out around growing train lines in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so their already-built downtown cores reflect that era's low-rise style.
Another may be the saturation of very tall buildings in downtown Chicago.
"People see that and they want their quiet suburb not to look that way," Al-Kodmany said. But reluctance can be countered, he said, with careful planning like what the two suburbs have done, creating a step-down effect from the tallest buildings through lower heights to single-family homes.
"I don't see why any town wouldn't welcome some type of high-rises in its downtown—if it has a downtown," said Tom Krettler, an agent with RE/MAX Unlimited Northwest and ex-president of the Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS. "That's the wave of the future, to have a central area where people can live there and go out at night, walk to a grocery store and then take the train to downtown Chicago for the bigger things, the museums."
In Al-Kodmany's assessment, Tinley Park and Orland Park are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Evanston and Arlington Heights. Both towns have improved and expanded their Metra stops in the 21st century, but the stations are "surrounded with lawns, and parks and parking lots," he said. "That's where you should have put tall buildings."
Surrounding those stations with shops, businesses and homes would create a street-level vitality that he finds lacking in flat parking lots.
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Housing close to trains also appeals to people who don't live there, Krettler said.
"A nice epicenter of activity makes people feel like walking around in the evening instead of staying home," he said.
Al-Kodmany's not saying every Metra stop should get a new Willis Tower for its neighbor. In suburban settings, buildings of around 10 stories work best, because they aren't out of scale with the traditional low-rise suburban look, he said. The mid-20th-century generation of suburban high-rise development sited them next to expressways, such as in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, "but that was when there was so little traffic that you could drive 65 miles per hour and get anywhere in half an hour or so," he said.
Now, with highways jammed and the metro area spreading out over about 10,000 square miles, "these buildings need to be where people can use them without cars," Al-Kodmany said.