After losing out on several Lincoln Park condominiums to higher bidders in 1993, Matt and Janet Fosket started looking in the western suburbs for an affordable place that would be close to his job in Northlake and along a commuter train line so she could travel to the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Priced out of tonier suburbs closer to Chicago such as LaGrange and Hinsdale, the Foskets ended up buying a one-bedroom condo in Downers Grove. With its then-sleepy downtown consisting mainly of a 100-year-old hardware store, ice-cream shop and basement bowling alley, "it wasn't love at first sight," says Janet Fosket.
The Foskets have since bought two additional Downers Grove homes — a starter single-family house and then a larger one with four bedrooms as their family grew to include three sons.
During the same period, Downers Grove experienced a substantial boom in development, with hundreds of large new houses built in a wave of teardowns.
A major redevelopment of the downtown has brought in restaurants and stores selling toys, craft beer, baked goods for dogs, fine chocolates, gourmet coffee, wine, olive oil, cigars, clothing and home furnishings.
Located nearly 25 miles from Chicago, Downers Grove got its start five years earlier than its big-city neighbor, in 1832, when Pierce Downer came across a grove of oak trees after traveling for days across flat prairies. He decided to settle there, establishing a farm near the grove and the intersection of two Indian trails. The town now is located on or near four major highways (Interstate Highways 88, 355, 55 and 294) and offers easy access to Chicago aboard commuter trains from its three Metra rail stations. Downers Grove in recent decades has built a thriving business community that helps diversify the tax base and brings in jobs. It is headquarters for Fortune 1000 companies Sara Lee Corp. and Hub Group Inc., a freight transportation company. Other major employers include FTD Group Inc., Washington Mutual Inc., Acxiom/May & Speh Inc., First Health Group Corp. and Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, which is the only level one trauma center in DuPage County.
Progress has not come without cost. In recent years, the town has faced widespread stormwater problems. Fixing all of the problems could cost as much as $340 million, according to reports prepared in 2007 by four consulting firms hired by the village. Like municipalities across the United States, Downers Grove deferred infrastructure investment for years, but is moving aggressively now to address these issues. To tackle the most pressing projects throughout the town over the next three years, Downers Grove will be issuing nearly $25 million in bonds in mid-August.
Some residents blame the surge in large new houses for triggering the stormwater issues.
"They have contributed somewhat to the problem, but the biggest issue is that we are relatively flat with multiple creeks and low-lying areas," says Robin Weaver, interim director of public works for Downers Grove.
Some residents formed a committee in 2007 to examine the issue of affordable housing. "Downers Grove is turning a little bit more into a town like Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills, and that's a mixed blessing," says Tim Drexler, who moved with his family to Downers Grove in 1990 and is not a member of the committee. "A lot of smaller houses with character are being replaced by McMansions, and that's unfortunate. We're losing some of that original character."
Affordable housing is not as much of an issue these days due to the downturn in the housing market, says Joe Pepitone, who has been a Downers Grove Realtor for 26 years. While the average single-family house in Downers Grove is about $450,000, the drop in housing prices has resulted in a stock of at least 60 single-family, 2- or 3-bedroom houses that would sell for $240,000 to $270,000, Pepitone estimates. "Three years ago, you almost couldn't find a house for $250,000 or $275,000," he says.
Others applaud the changes, saying Downers Grove has retained its small-town charm while just getting better. "There's a greater variety of people in Downers than a lot of the nearby towns, with everyone from working-class people to those who own million-and-a-half-dollar homes," says Joe Jura, who grew up in the suburb and moved back 11 years ago when he and his fiancé were ready to buy a house together. "It makes for a nice blend."
Downers Grove also has several major shopping centers and numerous car dealerships that generate the third highest retail sales taxes in DuPage County and eighth among all Chicago suburbs. The relentless growth has helped fuel the village's housing market.
Downers Grove housing appreciated 7 percent to 10 percent annually from the mid-1990s to 2005, a couple of percentage points faster than many of the surrounding towns, while some houses closer to downtown appreciated as much as 12 percent a year, says Pepitone.
The upward march in property values in Downers Grove has reversed in the past year. Hit by the housing slump sweeping the nation, the average Downers Grove price dropped 4 percent in April 2008 compared to the same month in 2007 while the number of houses sold fell 47 percent, according to the Mainstreet Organization of Realtors. In 2007, the average sale price rose 2 percent from 2006.
Some market segments are holding up, including sales for a half-dozen downtown luxury condo buildings recently completed or under construction. Priced from $225,000 to $695,000, they are drawing first-time buyers as well as empty-nesters who want to stay in Downers Grove. In addition, some custom-built houses continue to go up, while houses listed for more than $900,000 are selling pretty well since those buyers are less affected by the economic downturn, says Pam Mitrius, a real estate agent with Joe Pepitone Realtors.
Downers Grove's excellent schools remain a big draw. Among public schools, 11 of the 12 grade schools, two of the three junior highs and both high schools rank in the top quartile of performance for Illinois schools, with one elementary school and one junior high in the third quartile.
Downers Grove hosts national professional bicycling and ice-carving championships every year as well as such family-friendly fare as weekly concerts in the downtown park and classic car shows during the summer. The downtown also boasts a huge refurbished movie theater, the Tivoli, which was one of the first in the U.S. built to show "talkies" when it opened in 1928. The original Wurlitzer organ is played on most Friday and Saturday nights between movies, which are a bargain at just $4.
Although Matt Fosket now commutes 50 miles round trip to his current job in Mt. Prospect, the Foskets have no plans to leave Downers Grove. Says Janet Fosket, "It's changed so much and has so much to offer."
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