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Getting Away to Milwaukee

6/10/2006 - Getting away to Milwaukee
Chicagoans are finding second lakefront homes in a revitalized and festive downtown filling up with condos and served by Amtrak

By Mary Umberger
Tribune staff reporter

MILWAUKEE -- Kim McGivern would like to spend her weekends in downtown Chicago, but she says it's just too difficult.

"Chicago is so overcrowded, you can't walk. Downtown has gotten so expensive, you can't afford anything there. To park your car is ridiculous," said McGivern, a Northbrook resident who nonetheless wanted to invest in an urban getaway where she could take in the parks, the arts scene, the summer festivals.

So she bought a condo in downtown Milwaukee.

McGivern is part of a noticeable trend: Chicagoans who are buying real estate in that "other" downtown in order to enjoy lakefront weekends in a place where they say the pace is lively and urban, yet the price and the congestion seem more manageable.

They--and the city's promoters--say buying a second home in the heart of Milwaukee would seem odd only to those who haven't paid a recent visit to this revitalized city, which would like very much for Chicagoans to get over the stereotype of a Milwaukee populated by beer-swilling cheeseheads, of Laverne and Shirley skipping down the sidewalk to their jobs at a brewery.

"People say it doesn't fit with what I think Milwaukee is like," said Nancy O'Keefe, executive director of a civic group that promotes the Historic Third Ward neighborhood, a thriving 12-square-block area of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and theaters.

O'Keefe said that her neighborhood's attractions, plus the city's summer-long series of festivals along the nearby lakefront and a significant civic investment in museums and other tourist attractions, have caught Chicagoans' eyes.

"The 312s and 847s on my caller ID have increased dramatically in the last year," agreed Beth Savas, who handles sales for First Place on the River, a warehouse being transformed into condos.

That development is in the Fifth Ward neighborhood, across the river from the Third. Within the two places, Chicagoans are buying second homes among about 900 new and planned condos, where the developers promise upscale shopping, dining, boating and entertainment that's literally steps from their doorways.

If that marketing pitch sounds familiar, it's because it's the one that drew thousands of residents to formerly barren stretches of near-downtown Chicago neighborhoods in the past decade, creating an energy level that some now say is a little over the top for them.

So seekers of urban amusements are looking north. Several developers estimate 10 to 12 percent of recent buyers in downtown Milwaukee are from Illinois, though it's difficult to differentiate how many will use their Wisconsin real estate on a part-time, leisure basis as opposed to relocating there permanently.

The developers said they didn't market their condos to Chicagoans and so were surprised when they began turning up on their doorsteps.

Their Chicago buyers are typically empty nesters who not only feel stressed out by their own downtown, but priced out, too.

"Our typical Chicago buyers are north suburban residents," said Robert B. Monnat, chief operating officer of the Mandel Group, which is developing Marine Terminal Lofts in the Third Ward.

"They say, `I've lived in Chicago for years, I need a break,'" Monnat said. "It's as easy to come to Milwaukee as to the Loop. They can buy for half the price, or less."

Other developers peg the price ratio at 60 percent for comparable Chicago units. In any case, they aren't giving the places away: Many Third Ward and Fifth Ward condos are luxury units priced from $400,000 to upwards of $1 million--though some others tout $170,000 to $180,000 price tags for one-bedroom, riverfront addresses.

Many of the buildings offer the lifestyle trappings that have become symbols of upscale downtown living--ground-floor restaurants that offer room service to residents, indoor parking, concierges, etc.

Then there are the 100 or so boat slips that several buildings are selling or leasing. The developers say they're a magnet for Chicagoans.

Developer Peter Renner, for example, has sold 20 of 22 boat slips he's offering at Hansen's Landing, about a 5-minute river cruise from the lake. The slips, which sit literally beneath the windows of the people who own them, sold quickly for $1,000 a linear foot of dock space, he said. Others along the dock are leased.

"This is pocket change, compared to Chicago," Renner says.

Outright ownership of boat slips is a novelty in Chicago, where most are leased through the park district. A few waterfront buildings downtown do sell slips, and some homes and developments in neighborhoods along the Chicago River have their own docking facilities.

Although they don't own a boat, Ed and Sarah Stritch, who have lived in downtown Chicago for 16 years, bought a slip at Hansen's Landing as an investment. They bought a condo that overlooks it as an investment, too, with the intention of selling it a year after purchasing it last September.

Now they're on the verge of buying a boat. And they're keeping the Milwaukee condo for getaways. They sometimes spend several weekends a month there, occasionally arriving via Amtrak, whose Milwaukee station is a seven-minute walk from their condo.

In Milwaukee, they dine out, they shop, they go to festivals, they bike, Ed said.

"The neighborhood is getting livelier every day," he said. "You almost see the Chicago of 8 or 10 years ago--what was going on in the West Loop."

Unwinding in a city environment reflects a changed view of our vacation expectations, housing analysts say.

"This is not your father's idea of a vacation, but it's a Baby Boomer's," said Savas. "Many years back, a vacation destination was to a lake in Wisconsin. Our dad would haul us to a cottage that was so much work for my mother. Boomers are asking for conveniences."

The northward pull from Chicago probably means that the 90-mile gap between the two cities is closing--that Milwaukee is verging on becoming a distant suburb of Chicago, said John McIlwain, housing fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, which studies development trends.

"It's becoming all one big metropolitan area," McIlwain said. "It's been heading north for some time, and (Chicago) is now encompassing Milwaukee. I think (that Chicagoans purchasing vacation homes there) makes it all complete."

Agreement is not universal.

"Milwaukee has been overshadowed by Chicago," said developer Monnat. "But it is fiercely independent in terms of its identity."

Sales agent Savas said she knows that some Chicagoans have a certain disdain for Milwaukee. "That kind of snobbery exists everywhere, though. We in Milwaukee have that feeling about northern Wisconsin. Look at Parisians and their view of everything outside Paris."

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who now works and lives in Chicago, said the attitude was less of disdain than obliviousness.

"Chicagoans didn't think about Milwaukee at all," he said. Now, he said, easy access to the town, particularly by train, has made them take notice.

"That's part of the reason that Chicagoans are colonizing downtown Milwaukee."

McGivern said that though some Chicagoans might not get Milwaukee, the word is out that the town makes for a great escape--though she's not entirely sure that's a good thing.

"I swear, every time I go up there and meet people, they're all from Chicago," she said. "In a couple of years, it might be a pain in the butt to live there."


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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