Recently I took a bus ride into the future of Chicagoland with 25 commercial real-estate agents--an eight-hour excursion along the path of progress (also known as Interstate 88), sponsored by the economic-development agencies of Du Page, Kane, and De Kalb counties. The real-estate people were looking for land; the development people had some to show them.
In Du Page County, the closest-in of the three, little "raw land" remains--the county is "essentially built out," as a booster from Kane County noted gleefully. Now the suburban sprawl is oozing westward into Kane, with many a new subdivision sprouting in old towns like Aurora, Saint Charles, and Batavia. Out on the frontier is De Kalb, a vast cornfield of opportunity.
The first site we visited, reached before 8 AM, was a done deal. Just past a row of half-built Naperville town houses, the bus stopped and the woman at the microphone said: "All we have at this point is a sign." It promised the moving of earth by August and by late 1990 a new branch of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Said the woman, IIT's Ruth Sweetzer: "We're in the process of developing programs and look to you for input."
As the bus weaved back and forth along roads intersecting the Du Page portion of the interstate, somebody said something about the "ultimate development." He meant some new office park but could have been talking about I-88 itself, which starts 20 miles from Chicago in Oak Brook and goes west through Aurora and De Kalb and on into Iowa. To most people this stretch of highway is the East-West Tollway, but in the lexicon of progress it is the Illinois Research and Development Corridor, miles of shiny clean suburban skyline that boast three of Du Page's four regional malls and, for now anyway, many major-league construction payrolls.
Good news about Du Page, the fastest growing county outside the Sun Belt, flooded our ears as we peered through the windows at newly and partially built steel-and-glass concoctions. I-88, then called Illinois 5, was the boondocks when I was growing up in nearby Elmhurst. What happened to the prairies of my youth? One thing that happened is that the percentage of metro-area office space located outside the city proper has exploded from 2 percent in 1965 to more than 40 percent today.
Suburbia is no longer just a bunch of bedroom communities--it's become a major place of employment. Many of the heavies--General Motors, AT&T, and Amoco--have big operations along the corridor. The office-building complexes have names like Cor-porate West, Corporate Lakes, Three Corporate Lakes, Arboretum Lakes, and Corporetum Towers. The last is a trio of 15-story buildings, aptly named to capitalize on its proximity to Morton Arboretum. As we raced by the arboretum's 1,500 acres of protected open space, a melancholy silence swept through the bus. All that green, green earth in such a prime, prime location, and not one square foot for sale.
Otherwise, however, signs bearing the magic words--"Available," "Building Sites," "Build to Suit"--stood above most every undeveloped plot of land. Only an occasional barn, silo, or farmhouse blighted the otherwise picture-perfect scene of growth and prosperity.
We crossed from Du Page into Kane County with the sun high in the sky and Aurora's director of planning at the mike. Paul Rasmussen greeted the familiar faces, praised their spirit of "cooperative competitiveness," and began talking like Kane County's principal thriving metropolis would double in size by the close of business hours.
Aurora, I soon learned, has one church for every 650 people, one bookstore for every 45,000. But you want to know what's really super about this old river town of 90,000? Aside from a big minority population to serve corporate clerical pools, Aurora has Illinois' third biggest sewer system, and right now it's running at only 40 percent capacity.
Just outside of Aurora, in the middle of some woods, we visited Stonebridge, which I've since seen advertised--on a billboard 30 miles to the east, on the Eisen-hower Expressway--as a "golf course residential community." Well-heeled rat-race escapees will soon occupy these $300,000 homes, but on this day Stonebridge was just a construction workers' heaven, with walls going up and roofs going down on a half-dozen different houses. As our red-and-black Northern Illinois University bus edged by a cement truck shooting its contents into the form of a sidewalk, a concrete finisher on all fours looked confused, as if wondering what the hell the Marching Huskie Show Band was doing here.
"This is the site of Aurora's Third Cavalcade of Homes," Rasmussen said. "There will be 14 Cavalcade units for the show. One builder said if we keep this up, there won't be any builders left in Oak Brook."
Back on I-88, Rasmussen pointed out a huge tract of land. "The Du Page County Forest Preserve coveted those cornfields," he sneered. But Aurora's future tax base was saved by a developer who bought a neighboring parcel of land at a price that drastically limited the acreage that the Forest Preserve could afford to buy.
While whizzing through an old town whose only structure of note was a run-down house that doubled as the post office, Rasmussen said: "Reporters call every year to ask if Aurora plans to do something heinous to Eola. The answer is yes."
We passed through Geneva, Batavia, the outskirts of North Aurora, and Sugar Grove, the only place on the Kane County agenda that lacks sewer and water. This rustic touch primed us all for the big plunge into De Kalb County. Our first stop there, after a 20-mile tollway ride through farmland and more farmland, was the Northern Illinois University campus, where we had a lousy free lunch, after which NIU president John La Tourette stood up to say that more companies should take advantage of the university's research facilities. Then it was back to the bus, where Roger Hopkins of the new De Kalb County Economic Development Corporation finally had his turn to unveil 600 acres of choice industrially zoned property. He went site by site down his list, genuinely exuberant about "beautiful farmland" and "golden opportunities."
"That new industrial park over there is testing the pricing," Hopkins said, pointing beyond a plowing farmer to a piece of fallow land. "The per-acre average is $14,000 to $20,000. But the man who is developing it said he was offering the land at $50,000 and actually sold some for $60,000."
While several passengers chuckled at the thought of a buyer who would actually pay more than the asking price, Hopkins thanked his audience, invited them to call anytime for more information, and took a seat in the middle of the bus. During the long ride back east to Du Page, he told me that De Kalb is in no danger of becoming another
casualty of suburban sprawl. "Only 4 percent of our land is developed as opposed to 80 percent of Du Page," he said--though he had to concede that Du Page was almost entirely farmland not too many years ago.
"We just want a share of the growth," Hopkins said. "If impact fees, community opposition, and skyrocketing property costs are driving you batty, then come west to De Kalb County. Will Aurora and Elgin develop into the employment hub that makes De Kalb a bedroom community? I don't know. But we are within 45 minutes of the major west-suburban shopping malls."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.