Consider this scenario: A disconnected assortment of old buildings in an otherwise thriving downtown stands for years, taking up space but not adding to the vibrancy of the community. The economy tanks, and a plan to build condos to anchor the shopping and dining components bites the dust along with it.
Here's what's happening today: The height of the project shrinks and a hotel arises as the anchor, bringing boutiques, restaurants, much-needed parking, art, offices and eventually an ambience, a look and feel, a sense of place to what will be known as the Water Street District in downtown Naperville.
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This type of story is playing out at varying speeds across the suburban landscape, as developers aim to reshape vacant or underused sites instead of sprawling farther from Chicago.
"It's probably one of the more encouraging things we're seeing out there right now ... turning back to your roots of the cities and towns and trying to create vitality there," said Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council. "I think it's a realization that you can do a lot there by turning back to your roots and creating attractive spaces."
One company is putting this suburban redevelopment formula to work across the region. The leaders of Marquette Companies of Naperville say their focus on careful site selection and community partnerships has allowed them to complete well-received apartment communities in North Aurora and Algonquin, and will help them transform sections of suburban downtowns -- from one of the largest in Naperville to one of the smallest next door in Lisle -- with so-called mixed-use projects.
"We look for areas that are extraordinary locations but perhaps are obsolete," said Nick Ryan, CEO of Marquette Companies. "We've been a national development company and have kind of come back to our roots a little bit. I think the opportunity is here now."
Hot market: Rentals
At the site of the long-awaited Water Street District in downtown Naperville, Marquette Companies originally wanted to build condos. Luxury ones with views of the DuPage River and the city's famed Riverwalk.
In 2007, a plan to raze and redevelop six buildings on Water Street between Webster and Main streets was approved, including the condos Marquette envisioned.
But later that year, the economy began struggling. As Marquette's Director of Property Management Jeff Prosapio said, "Condos became largely undevelopable."
Builders have turned away from condos, which many people would buy "on speculation," Bibby said, in favor of a more steady revenue source from apartment rents.
"With apartments, you know what you're getting," he said. "It's just a more certain cash-flow environment."
In the case of Water Street, a hotel replaced the space originally designed as condos. But in Algonquin and North Aurora, Marquette turned to apartments to help revive stalled projects other developers could not complete.
"Esplanade Phase II" was designed and annexed into Algonquin in 2007, senior planner Katie Parkhurst said. The site, off Randall Road, was planned to be the village's first new apartment complex in quite some time and its largest by far. But the original developer, E.J. Plesko and Associates, hit the same economic roadblocks Marquette experienced in Naperville and the project went nowhere until the two companies entered a joint venture in 2012.
"They came in and picked up a stalled development and moved forward with it," Parkhurst said about Marquette Companies, which recently completed a $25 million, 220-unit apartment development at the Esplanade site and named it Algonquin Square. "Certainly since the apartments were under construction, that did spur a lot of other developers to take a look at the area again, which we were very excited about."
Ryan said apartments are faring better because residents crave mobility and don't want to feel stuck, as they might by buying a condo. With a development called Randall Highlands in North Aurora, he said, Marquette is finding not just single people but also families interested in multifamily living without the commitment.
Randall Highlands includes 146 townhouse-style apartments with attached two-car garages, two or three bedrooms and a clubhouse with a pool to be finished by Memorial Day.
North Aurora Village President Dale Berman said Marquette took over the project in 2012, changing original builder Next Generation Development's plan to build condos into a $20 million joint venture with high-end apartments.
"I think it's going to be a favorable addition to our community. We need a mix of single-family and multifamily, owner-occupied and leased," Berman said. "I think we've got a good balance, and we want to maintain that."
Algonquin and North Aurora leaders say they have seen positive effects since residents started moving into new Marquette developments last fall. A Hobby Lobby opened near the now-completed Algonquin Square complex, and Parkhurst said the village has noticed more interest in its nearby business park -- a major goal.
For residents of the company's apartment developments, Marquette aims to provide the benefit of an engaging community. Almost like a residence hall adviser creates community on a dorm floor, a "community life architect" is hired at most complexes Marquette manages to plan gatherings tailored to resident interests and connect tenants with organizations as varied as softball leagues, churches, tutors and food pantries.
"We have a unique culture," Ryan said. "We just make it so it's a community environment. The idea is if you move in, you meet people, you're connected up, you get involved."
Marquette manages properties in 23 states, and locally in places such as Itasca, Lisle, Rolling Meadows and Schaumburg. Ryan said 76 percent of those tenants want to "plug in" to their community. Social events like wine tastings, daddy-daughter dances and wellness workshops help make such community involvement simple and seamless.
"People are realizing if you can live, work and play in the same area, it's a lot more convenient," Ryan said.
Live, work and play is the combination Marquette is looking to build in downtown Lisle at the former village hall site at Main Street and Burlington Avenue, which has been empty since 2004.
Pending village board approval, the site will be home to 200 apartments with underground parking and streetscape improvements, along with first-floor retail and restaurants and a plaza with a fountain for outdoor dining.
Lisle Mayor Joe Broda said the $40 million investment will "start the ball rolling" as Lisle aims to refashion several downtown sites and encourage more residents to support the string of small businesses already on Main Street.
"What I'm envisioning it to become is a very profitable site," Broda said about the yet-to-be-named development, which could be completed by spring 2016. "We've been told for years that we need more people in the downtown area."
People already flock to the stores and restaurants of downtown Naperville, which is just west of downtown Lisle but quite a different scene.
The future site of the Water Street District -- a one-block-long section of Water Street just south of the DuPage River and east of the Naperville Municipal Center -- isn't vacant, but it isn't thriving like the rest of the downtown. It's home to six office buildings of various ages and architectural styles that downtown advisory commission member and property owner Steve Rubin calls "ugly" and "haphazard."
Marquette plans to break ground by late spring on a $90 million plan to bring a Hotel Indigo, parking, offices, a new segment of the popular Riverwalk, restaurants and boutique jewelry or clothing shops to the southern end of downtown Naperville.
Portions of the development are expected to open late next year.
"It's really a legacy project for us," Prosapio said. "All of the principals of our company live in Naperville."
The area already has a retail anchor on its north end in the Main Street Promenade, but little shopping activity crosses the DuPage River. That will change, Marquette leaders say, when the story of their redevelopment efforts is complete.
"This project will anchor the south end," said Rubin, who will be redeveloping one of his own properties on Water Street while Marquette builds its improvements. "It's serving to continue to complete the downtown and provide what I call a bowl that contains the energy."