Booming development in Forest Park driven by out-of-towners

Empty nesters have spurred at least 9 new residential and retail properties

January 9th, 2018 1:34 PM

Mark Zinni left River Forest after 30 years for a more affordable residence in Forest Park as an empty-nester. Others are joining him. | Alexa Rogals/Staff Photographer

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By Nona Tepper

After 30 years of life on a historic block in River Forest, Mark Zinni bought a building in Forest Park, renovated it to his liking and moved his business, family and home there in July 2016. 

"This is an age-appropriate dream home," Zinni said of his new three-bedroom apartment at 428 Marengo Ave., which he recently renovated to include a rooftop deck, rain shower, elevator and more. His wife, Maura, even convinced her family to move from River Forest to Marengo with them, joining the tide of ex-pats from Oak Park and other villages who have recently moved to Forest Park. 

"The baby boomers are finished with work and want to come to Forest Park for a smaller envelope to live in," said Steve Glinke, director of the Forest Park Department of Public Health & Safety. 

Indeed, new arrivals are coming to Forest Park later in life, after their kids have moved from home, looking to downsize, pay less in taxes and live close to the restaurants and shops along bustling Madison Street. Empty nesters' recent arrival has spurred development of at least nine new residential and retail properties, which Glinke said is the most local development he's seen since 2008, before the property bubble burst. Many of the new properties are being built by developers from Oak Park and other towns. 

"There's always that sort of fun, 'We got them, you didn't' or 'They're coming over to our town,'" Glinke said of neighbors like Oak Park. "But it's not really a competition. Comparing Oak Park to Forest Park is like comparing apples to automobiles, they're not even both fruit."  

Glinke said that while Forest Park doesn't have a well-funded organization like the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a group that works to bring businesses to town, Forest Park does offer a few things that some of its neighbors can't: small lot sizes, a walkable downtown, and easy access to transportation. 

For Chicagoans, Forest Park lot sizes are huge, and also offer more green space, a walkable/bikeable downtown, and proximity to public transportation or the Eisenhower Expressway. Compared to River Forest and Oak Park, local lot sizes are significantly smaller, more like Berwyn's. But "Berwyn's got the bungalow belt, it's block after block of Chicago bungalows," Glinke said, noting that the village hired the Chicago-based Muse Community + Design firm, Jan. 8, to help with day-to-day planning in Forest Park. 

Architectural diversity, small lot sizes, low taxes and more have driven the moving vans to Forest Park. Glinke estimated about 75 percent of the village's new arrivals are empty-nesters like Zinni, who has long been investing in Forest Park. 

Zinni, 61, an architect, bought the building on the 400 block of Marengo Avenue in November 2014. His daughters, Mia and Mary, had already moved out of the house, one to San Francisco, the other in downtown Chicago. While life on the 700 block of William Street was inspiring — the River Forest block represents the first Prairie School planned development — Zinni realized the empty bedrooms at 707 William St. were not. 

"River Forest was great for my kids who got a great education, but we had much more house than we needed beyond one or two days out of the year," Zinni said, adding, "Some of those bedrooms nobody ever went into — except the cleaning lady."  

None of the space at his open-plan home at 428 Marengo Ave. is under-utilized. Zinni estimates he also pays about a quarter of the taxes in Forest Park that he did in River Forest, although his house is much smaller. He uses the cost savings to vacation more — memorable recent trips include Spain and Mexico — pay for his daughter Mia's wedding, and go out to eat at least once a week at Francesca's Fiore, 7407 Madison St. 

"I've seen sales go up in Forest Park from people moving out of Oak Park," said Jody Jay, general manager at Francesa's. "It's more and more because people can't afford to live in Oak Park." 

Mischa DeHart, a restaurateur and broker (@properties), said she, too, started developing in Forest Park because the property taxes were too high in neighboring towns. Although DeHart lives in Oak Park, she's completed three projects in Forest Park, even serving on the village council's economic development committee. 

Now the DeHarts plan to have their two apartments, office and retail property at 7435 Madison St. ready to lease in April. Husband Jacob DeHart will relocate his tech company, Thrilled, from the West Loop to the Madison Street office space. The DeHarts are seeking $30 per square foot for the 1,038-square-foot retail space and want to attract a business that will generate sales tax revenue for Forest Park. DeHart said she hasn't decided on the asking price for the apartment yet.

"Some towns are difficult to work with," DeHart said. "Forest Park is very easy, and approachable, and responsive, and will help you move things along."