Monday, May 23, 2011

Reinvention Brewing at Donovan Park

Back when the housing boom was cresting, the area around Donovan Park looked primed for a residential reinvention. It fell outside the planned manufacturing district between Morgan and Racine, its industrial buildings were coming down, one by one. Whole blocks of land were available for new construction, and the city was willing to make zoning changes.

But the crest broke before the reinvention really happened. Regionally, new home sales peaked in the 2nd quarter of 2005, then started a long decline. They’re still declining. New home sales were down 20% in the 1st quarter of 2011 compared to 1st quarter 2010 – they’re down more than 90% from 2005.

In April 2007, two years into the decline, Lexington Homes acquired a block of parcels on the Sangamon side of Donovan Park and announced plans for Lexington Square, a collection of 39 townhomes with prices starting at $440,000. The timing was optimistic, and prices have bobbed a bit – they were down to mid-$300s in 2009 – but the units have been selling. Today prices start at $380,000 and $419,000 for townhomes of 2,200 to 2,560 square feet.

And Lexington Homes wants to keep building. Founder Jeff Benach says Lexington is in talks with owners of two other parcels around the park. “A few years ago, we would have both properties under contract by now,” Benach told me when I spoke to him in mid-May. “We’re going to have to get started soon – we’ve sold 30 units, we may sell another tonight.”

Lexington Homes isn’t just one of the last homebuilders still building, they’re also one of the few family owned companies still standing. Local builders dominated the Chicago market in new homes for decades. The balance began to shift as national builders bought local companies over the past decade or so. And the shift accelerated as some of the biggest local builders went out of business in the bust. Now, Lexington Homes stands out as an exception in the field.

Founded by father and son Ron and Jeff Benach, Lexington Homes is Ron’s 4th homebuilding company in 4 decades. The previous 3 were each sold to other builders – most recently, Concord Homes was purchased by national homebuilder Lennar in 2002.

“We survived, not because we’re so smart,” Jeff Benach says now. “We sold Concord at the right time.” And when the long draught hit the housing market, the new company was still small. “We weren’t sitting there with 20 subdivisions under development.”

Ten years ago, the Benach’s were among the first of the suburban homebuilders to move from cornfield development, where whole subdivisions are built from the ground on undeveloped land, to urban infill, a landscape many homebuilders still avoid.

“It takes a different skill set,” Benach says. The property starts out with vestiges of earlier developments, whether it’s a structure on top, or remains underground. But more than that, he says the urban environment is more heavily regulated. Municipalities have their zoning codes, and neighbors are often vocal about their preferences. Often, Jeff says, that preference is for open space.

“It’s a negotiation process,” he says. “It takes longer. And sometimes you get far into it, spend money, and something comes up and you realize it’s not going to work.”

Lexington Homes launched 2 suburban developments at the same time it announced Lexington Square in Bridgeport – one in Wheeling and one in Des Plaines. The suburban projects have sold faster -- the Wheeling development is sold out.

Regina Castle, who manages sales for Lexington Square says they anticipated a slower sales schedule for the city properties from the outset. The suburban units are almost half the price of the city units, and they are still considered urban infill, in close proximity to Metra commuter trains to downtown.

But city living has its appeal, and she points out that Lexington Square is both close to urban excitement, but still conducive to a quiet lifestyle. She says dog owners are attracted to the park, and the rooftop views of downtown, and of the fireworks from Sox Park, are spectacular.

She describes buyers who grew up in Bridgeport, went to school and are coming back to raise their families here. Others are professional couples who bought condos downtown, or in more bustling neighborhoods like University Village. Now they want a more suburban lifestyle that is still in the city. And they don’t have time to do renovations on an older single family home.

The absence of other new construction in an urban environment, where much of the surrounding stock is more than 80 years old, is apparently one of the advantages to selling urban infill. Before the bust, other developers had been attracted to the surplus industrial land surrounding Bridgeport’s protected manufacturing district, but their projects have mostly fallen through.

In fact, Lexington Homes acquired their parcels on Sangamon from another developer who sold them as his troubles began to mount. There is a trailer advertising “Donovan Park Place,” a new construction condominium project, on the parking lot alongside Lexington Square. The Jameson Sotheby’s International Agent who represents it says Donovan Park Place isn’t going forward, they just haven’t removed the trailer yet. She says the Bridgeport Collection, the Jameson Sothby’s project on 37th Place at Normal is “on hold.

Builders began making hopeful predictions that new home sales hit bottom and were about to revive back in 2009, only to watch sales register new lows. But a recent uptick in suburban land sales may be evidence that the revival has finally arrived. Suburban land is selling because prices have dropped from highs around $40 a square foot to prices closer to $10. But as Lexington Homes looks to keep building, it’s not clear the landowners around Donovan Park are ready to lower their sights yet.

Jerry Olsen of Newmark Knight Frank represents the large parcel on 37th Street between Sangamon and Lituanica – the one with the fence swathed in banners for Lexington Homes. He says the owners of the 37th street block had turned down an offer for over $3 million before the downturn, and that makes it harder to compromise now.

The land had been the site of Acme Barrel, which cleaned metal barrels from chemical companies, and the detergents seeped into the soil. It took them 3 years to get their NFR letter from the Illinois EPA, by the time they had it, the market had crashed.

He says the city has expressed interest in acquiring the parcel to extend Donovan Park, but they don't have any money right now either.

That leaves the sellers stuck coming to terms with the difference between the what the market value was, and what it is now. Olsen says he anticipates it will take 2-5 years, conservatively, for prices to recover, particularly considering the weakness of the job market.

Meanwhile, Donovon Park is surrounded by owners who appear to be settling in to wait. Fontanini’s has demolished their old plant on 38th Street, Olsen says that will make their real estate taxes lower if they have to hold on to it for awhile.

Rowena Cheng of Selective Realty Service represents the owner of the block across from the park on Lituanica. It was formerly a food warehouse. As new homes drew closer, the owner had begun to receive complaints about the trucks, so when it suffered a fire, he decided to tear it down.

Cheng says Lexington Homes approached them about the property. It would be enough land for 14 homes, and the owner wants $1.5 million, a sum Lexington Homes thought was too much to build homes for the market as it is today. But Cheng says the owner is in no hurry to sell.

“He knows what the property is worth.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Calabruzzi's Cafe Adds a New Reason to Visit Halsted Street

Calabruzzi’s Café is a family owned and operated restaurant of Italian American cuisine, but it also marks the return to Bridgeport’s Halsted strip of a restaurant that had disappeared for awhile. At least it reminds me of a youthful version of the kind of place my parents might have gone on a date – a place you go for a nice dinner that starts with a fancy cocktail, something like what I imagine the Governor’s Table and the Coral Key used to be.

Saturday, I went in for dinner with the friend who is my source of information about those other establishments. He hesitates at the comparison, he remembers them being more formal – the menu more surf and turf, the bartender dressed in a jacket and tie. “We wouldn’t walk into Coral Key dressed like this,” he says. Though he agrees the dress code was partly a factor of the era.

It was an era before the arrival of intentional food, cable cooking programs and the widespread use of the term “foodie” to describe the amateur food critic. When a good restaurant was a place that served a meal with roots in home cooking, except with richer ingredients, cooked skillfully by somebody else – which is what our dinner at Calabaruzzi’s was like.

Owner Rosanna Mandile comes from a cooking family, and family is strongly represented at Calabruzzi’s. Her father, Angelo, was a cook at Papa Milano’s (also of that other era) when he first came to the States from Italy in the 1970s. Later he became a mason to better support his family, but the Mandile family always cooked. In the winter, when construction trades were slow, they started cooking mid-afternoon. They cured sopresatta and made wine, they jarred eggplant and tomatoes, and mushrooms her father gathered from the woods. They bought rabbits from a farm in Michigan, her father and uncle skinned their own.

Rosanna got her first restaurant job at 15 – she worked at Maggiolini’s, a pizzeria one of her uncles owned in Gage Park, until she married at 22. Pizza is a central part of the menu at Calabruzzi’s. She says it’s the water that makes Chicago pizza superior. Her aunts mix dough with Evian -- she can’t do that at the restaurant, but even Chicago tap water makes pizza here taste better than what they make with the water in New York and LA.

When she married, she moved back to Bridgeport with her husband. Her father-in-law was in the flea-market business and she worked for him for a few years. But she had cooking at the back of her mind. She traveled to Italy shortly after her marriage, learning recipes from her Italian aunts as she travelled the south and central regions.

She began planning to open her own restaurant in earnest 4 years ago. The family owned the building at 3304 S. Halsted, but first they had to clear it out. It had been vacant since the 1980s, her father in law had gradually filled it with furniture, it was part of a network of storefronts he used to warehouse merchandise for his flea market enterprise. They sent a semi-load of donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and shuffled the rest to other facilities.

Then they rebuilt the storefront from the floor to the ceiling. Angelo poured the concrete floor and built the bar out of masonry. They restored the tin ceiling with a copper finish in honor of the coppersmiths of her mother’s hometown. Her cousin, Nicholas De Crescenso, painted a large mural of Rome’s Trevi Fountain for the north wall at Rosanna’s request. The south wall is hung with maps of Calabrria and Abruzzo painted on towels. Rosanna says the family name, Mandile, means towel; her father came from Calabria her mother from Abruzzo; Calabruzzi’s is a conjunction of the names. The staff, 5 of whom are cousins, all wear Italian soccer jersey’s and puma track shoes – in honor of another cousin who is a 2012 Olympic hopeful in women’s steeplechase.

After years of research and a lifetime of cooking, Rosanna had developed a menu that was 10 pages long. “Everyone said ‘You’re crazy,’” a 10 page menu would put her out of business. So she pared it down to the basics, “what people are used to around here,” and the rest of it will cycle through the specials list. There will be several preparations of rabbit; cardi soup, made with real cardoons, not American celery, for the New Year; and a pescara pizza with shrimp, clams, mussles and calamari for Lent. Meanwhile, the regular menu includes family specialties, like pizza made with their own sopresata mix, her father’s special pescara salad, and a cannoli she makes from a pizzelle cookie.

Calabruzzi’s opened for business quietly 3 weeks ago, 3 days before the Sox Home Opener, to be precise. “I wanted to give my staff time to get their bearings for a few days,” Rosanna says.

Its arrival rounds out a trio of new restaurants on Halsted Street that cover the culinary bases: Buffalo Wings and Rings is the Sports-Bar; Nana has the cutting edge organic cuisine; Calabruzzi’s is traditional Italian-American, served in a dining room with warm décor that makes you want to sit down and eat-in. And the owners of all three establishments have known each other for years; now they can lend each other mutual support.

The owner of Nana came to Calabruzzi’s to eat the first day it opened, and left a glowing comment on the restaurant’s facebook page. Rosanna says the partners at Buffalo Wings and Rings have been generous with advice and have sent her patrons when they’ve had an overflow crowd. Between the three of them, they’ve multiplied the reasons to stop in on Halsted Street.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Notes from the Bar: Labor History Night at Maria's

It was Future of Bridgeport think-tank night at Maria’s Community Bar – that happens most Sundays from 6-8pm. A few weeks ago, there was a special lecture on some incidents of 19th century labor strife in anticipation of the 125th Anniversary of the Haymarket massacre.

Afterwards, I had a chat with an older couple who’d stopped in by chance and stayed for the lecture. I liked them, they were very decent people. We disagreed about almost everything. They’d listen thoughtfully to every point I’d offer up. Then they’d vigorously make the opposite point.

They don’t live in Bridgeport themselves, and they are technically Republicans. At least he holds office in suburban county government as a Republican. She works for county government too. She grew up here, around 33rd and Morgan. He says when he first came to see her there the neighbors slashed all his tires – they didn’t like him because he was Italian. He was from Taylor Street.

He was 22 when they met, just out of the army. She was 16. She was one of the first girls to attend Tilden High School, the year it became co-ed. Sometimes Tilden sounds like it was tougher back then than they say it is today. She says she lasted half a day at Tilden, and never went back.

They got married because she got pregnant. Now they’ve been married for 40-something years, they’ve raised 3 sons.

They moved to the suburbs shortly after they married, but they bought a condo in the former hospital where he was born, and they like to drive around to different neighborhoods and stop in places, just to see what’s going on.

He still serves as a precinct captain for Danny Solis. He says he’s not particularly Democrat or Republican, he supports good people. His father was a precinct captain, his sons have been precinct captains too.

His father used to take him around with him to turn out the vote – they had some of the black precincts. He said the women were the voters there, the men didn’t vote. He said a couple things he might not have, if he knew I was going to go home and type it up on my blog.

“I’m not racist,” he says – though people tend to say that after they’ve described ways they think blacks act differently from other groups of people. He also tends to lament that people and politics are all different now. The people aren’t as responsible, the politics are more corrupt.

But he thinks the problem with the people is that they have forgotten that the way to live is to look out for each other. “It can’t be all about yourself,” he says, having raised 3 sons, and standing in the company of the woman he married over 40 years ago, when she was still a girl. It sounds like things might not have looked entirely promising for them when they first started out.

About politics, he says “Sure it was corrupt then,” but you always had somebody you could go to for help when you needed it. You’d go to the precinct captain if you needed a garbage can, or if you needed to get your son off of death row. Well, he couldn’t necessarily get your son off death row. But back then elected officials served the people who voted them into office; now they serve the lobbyists who pay for their campaigns.

They don’t have much sympathy for government workers now. Even though they both work for government themselves. They think Scott Walker was right to bring the unions to heel in Wisconsin. She describes negotiating with the unions here for weeks before they thought they’d reached a workable compromise -- then the union reps announced they couldn’t commit, they had to take it back to their membership and start over again.

He claims Wisconsin government workers pay a miniscule fraction toward their own health care. We’re in the same situation in Illinois -- only our budget is worse. He says he stands in line in the pharmacy behind elderly people who fork over hundreds of dollars in cash to pay for their meds, and then he gets to the counter and pays almost nothing. “It’s not sustainable!” he says.

That’s why I liked them, even when we didn't agree, they didn’t seem to be making harsh judgments on some distant group of other people.

There is a classic study of the Taylor Street area done back in the early 60s, when he was there as a young man. It’s called The Social Order of the Slum. The author challenges the prevailing view that slums were defined by their lack of social organization, and by deviance from moral order. The deviance was assumed to be self-evident in the high rates of delinquency, teen pregnancy, divorce and crime.

The author of the study doesn’t challenge that, but he uses the neighborhood around Taylor Street to argue that the slum is not disorganized so much as organized around different principles, principles designed to preserve the safety of its inhabitants in an unstable environment, rattled by forces beyond their control.

The guy at Maria’s remembers what people said about his old neighborhood. He was a tough kid himself. Though he qualifies “We’d go fight under the viaduct. We’d fight with our fists. Now they use guns and shoot people in front of schools.”

He had nearly a dozen half-brothers and sisters. He says most of them got into trouble, they got into drugs, or into crime, or went into jail. He was starting to get involved in some questionable dealings himself for awhile, up on the Gold Coast. But then he decided he didn’t want to get embroiled in all that. So he quit that life. He got himself a factory job.

He says he thinks at the end of the day, it came out for the best that they cleared part of his old neighborhood to build the campus for the University of Illinois. Look at that neighborhood now. Though he seems to hesitate a little when I am surprised to hear him say that.

He says there’s a difference between how things were back then, and how they are now. Back then, you could conceivably get yourself a factory job, and support your family, lead a decent life. Now you need a college degree, even a graduate degree to get a foothold. And the good life, or at least a life in which you can provide for your family in “organized society,” is harder to grasp if you don’t start out with one.

“Keep thinking,” he encourages me amiably before they leave Maria’s Community Bar for the night. “I haven’t figured it all out yet.”