Victoria Bisbikis doesn't consider herself impulsive but she broke character by plunking down a deposit immediately after seeing how the kindergarten room at the former Central School in Libertyville was shaping up.
"I didn't want to take the chance of losing it," the soon-to-be single mom said of the three-bedroom loft -- the only one with a fireplace and bay window in the SchoolStreet Lofts project just east of downtown.
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"I immediately thought, 'Gosh, this is not your typical suburban townhouse or condo, which are everywhere,' " said Bisbikis, a 40-year-old sales rep in the biotech field and self-described "city person" who for the past seven years has lived in the big lot expansiveness of Hawthorn Woods.
Reviving the school building has been a longtime goal of village officials, who began assembling properties for redevelopment in the 1970s. They required that Central School remain part of the neighborhood.
"It's part of the character of downtown," said John Spoden, community development director. "We didn't want to lose the architecture. We didn't want to lose the building."
The result is a suburban project that has reinvigorated a local landmark and introduced a unique element for the community within walking distance of downtown and many amenities.
Converting the Country Georgian-style elementary school into lofts also has been an attractive challenge for John McLinden. The Libertyville resident and builder has incorporated the old brick building as a focal point of the nationally recognized School Street development, which features 26 single family homes in a compact "front-porch revival," urban-style neighborhood.
"This is how it was," he says of the exterior of the school, which was completed in 1938 and has been restored to its original classic style to include fine architectural details and a cupola on the roof. The building was designed originally by Stanley D. Anderson of Anderson and Ticknor, which built several Public Works Administration schools during the Depression era, including Lake Forest High School.
"The windows are exactly the pattern as the old ones," says McLinden. "This is a beautiful idea and we wanted it to be authentic, the way it used to be."
Beginning in the last quarter of 2012, the interior of the school was gutted to accommodate 15 lofts ranging from 657 square feet to 1,568 square feet on three levels including the basement. Prices range from about $179,000 to $425,000, McLinden said.
With school-sized windows and 12-foot ceilings, the lofts have been marketed for their "height and light" McLinden said. Nine of the 15 units have been sold.
The result is unique among suburban offerings.
"You do not see that type of development, the conversion, in the suburban areas," said Erik A. Doersching, executive vice president and managing partner for Tracy Cross & Associates Inc., a real estate consulting and market research firm based in Schaumburg.
Part of the reason is there are few opportunities to combine an existing structure like the school with a desirable location, he added.
McLinden has extensive experience with urban lofts, having converted 1.5 million square feet of properties in familiar Chicago neighborhoods in the 1980s. Since then, he estimated he has done about 600 condo conversions, about half of them in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.
His StreetScape Development LLC bought the School Street property out of foreclosure in October 2010. The original development was to have featured 31 brownstones with an average price of about $750,000 but the weak economy put an end to that project after only five were built.
McLinden decided to retool and capitalize on the location close to a variety of downtown shops and restaurants, Metra commuter rail station, library, civic center, the event-packed Cook Park and other amenities.
"The big part of the story is we reinvented it to be single-family homes on 29-foot lots, which is outrageous in the suburbs," McLinden said.
The "throwback" neighborhood is based on the concept of New Urbanism, which mimics the feeling of pre-suburban city neighborhoods.
"This is how people want to live, connected to a downtown. They want a more pedestrian, urban lifestyle. This encourages people to interact," McLinden said.
Acclaimed architect and author Sarah Susanka designed one of the homes and another has been designated as a federal Department of Energy Challenge Home, attracting attention from several national publications.
As of late February, 19 single-family homes were occupied. Four are under construction and 25 of 26 altogether have been sold. According to the agreement with the village, six of the units must be "affordable" and are priced under $230,000.
McLinden estimated the value of the entire project at $20 million with about $4 million of that involving Central School.
To ensure it is finished, the village is requiring a $5,000 deposit for each of five remaining single-family homes to be released when occupancy permits for the school are issued. That number originally was 11 but because of delays with the schools and the rapid pace of single-family home construction, the number was reduced, McLinden said.
Citing the need to adjust to a weak market, StreetScape last fall received village approval to scale back the original vision for the school. The changes included eliminating dormers, providing surface parking rather than building a deck and opting not to build on the third floor, where a luxury penthouse had been envisioned.
Construction financing for a speculative condo project was not forthcoming, so developers worked with a local bank to secure financing as if it were being built as a rental apartment project, McLinden said. With nine sold through February, the building will be redefined as a condo project.
Inside, terrazzo topped staircases and the main hallway remain as original features. The units also feature scalloped, 12-foot-high, poured-in place concrete ceilings and exposed ductwork.
"That definitely was a big draw," said Brian Palmer, a single 32-year-old executive who rents near the Metra station in Highwood and has lived in Wauconda and Vernon Hills. He said he was looking to buy a place when his real estate agent told him about a "cool" project in Libertyville.
"It went from being nosy and checking the place out to buying it that weekend," he said.