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Illinois buyers feel at home in Milwaukee condos, on weekends

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Tom Daykin
April 10, 2006

When hunting for a vacation home, Edward Monroe and his wife, Nanci, wanted an urban location, within a relatively short drive of their northern Illinois house, something that would work for weekend getaways.

So, naturally, they bought a condo in downtown . . . Milwaukee?

Edward Monroe, who grew up in Chicago and lives in La Salle, Ill., acknowledges that his Flatlander friends thought he was crazy.

"A lot of people don't understand what Milwaukee has to offer," Monroe said. "All the festivals in the summer, and the culture, and the museums."

Monroe's condo at The Waterfront, 130 S. Water St., overlooks the Milwaukee River and includes a slip for the family's new boat. Lake Michigan is just a few minutes away.

"Once you get access to Lake Michigan, you can go anywhere," said Monroe, who bought the unit in September.

The Monroes are among a small but growing number of people who are buying condos in the downtown Milwaukee area as vacation homes. They're typically coming here on weekends to enjoy the city's restaurants, museums and other attractions. Some are from the Chicago metropolitan area, and some live even farther from Milwaukee, drawn in part by the relative affordability of condos in downtown and its nearby neighborhoods, including the Historic Third Ward and Walker's Point.

"The prices are less expensive than in the Chicago area, especially on the water," said Judy Pemberton, director of condominium sales at Ogden & Co., which is marketing units at River Renaissance, under construction at 102 N. Water St.

Around half of that development's 80 units have been sold, including a pair of condos to a Chicago-area couple, Pemberton said. The couple will use one condo for a second home and keep the other unit as an investment, she said. Prices at River Renaissance start at just less than $180,000.

Investments, Getaways

At First Place on the River, which has 150 units under construction at 106 W. Seeboth St., five condos have been sold to people from northern Illinois, said the development's sales agent, Beth Savas of The Stefaniak Group.

One of those units will be used for weekend getaways, and another will be a second home for someone who frequently travels to Milwaukee for business, Savas said. The remaining three units were sold as investments, she said.

Brokers and developers say the vast majority of condos being sold throughout downtown and its surrounding neighborhood are to people who already live in the Milwaukee area, mainly those ubiquitous "empty nesters" and young professionals.

The forays from south of the border amount to "an unusual phenomena that points to a trend," said Einar Tangen, chairman of the Historic Third Ward business improvement district.

Tangen said the greater value offered by Milwaukee condos, relative to those for sale in Chicago, along with plans to extend the Chicago area's Metra commuter rail service from Kenosha to Milwaukee, are part of growing ties between the two cities.

"The psychological connection is beginning to strengthen," Tangen said.

Same Scene, Better Attitude

John Jacobs is a longtime Chicago-area resident and business operator. He decided in 2003 to buy a vacation condo at The Waterfront, where he and Monroe are neighbors.

Jacobs, who operates a string of Jiffy Lube outlets, and his wife, Laurie, a school psychologist, make the 75-minute drive from their Woodstock, Ill., home to the Walker's Point condo four or five times a month.

Among other things, the Jacobses enjoy the local theater scene, the Milwaukee Art Museum and basketball games at Marquette University, where one son graduated and another son is a sophomore.

"Milwaukee, I think, offers almost everything Chicago does, with none of the negative attributes," said Jacobs, who also has two children in high school.

That includes a lack of traffic jams that routinely snarl Chicago, both Jacobs and Monroe said.

"It's also just the attitude of Milwaukee," Jacobs said. "People are friendlier. You go into Chicago and you feel as though all your senses are under attack. You don't get that in Milwaukee."

"Milwaukee is a cool place," Monroe said. "You could sit and talk to anybody."

Jacobs paid just more than $400,000 for his unit, which has around 1,650 square feet, according to assessment records. A comparable unit on the Chicago River, he said, would cost twice as much.

"The value over Chicago is just unbelievable," Jacobs said.

Potential of Market

Those prices also are attracting out-of-state buyers who view their condos primarily as investments. Peter Martinez recently agreed to buy two condos at The Edge, which Chicago-based Tandem Developers LLC plans to build at 1890 N. Commerce St. He expects to sell the units for a profit as the project nears completion in the fall of 2007.

"You do have to get in on the ground floor," said Martinez, director of the Center for School Leadership at University of Illinois-Chicago. "Chicago is pretty worked over."

The investment potential of the downtown Milwaukee market led Monroe to recently buy two condominiums at First Place on the River.

But Monroe's main interest in Milwaukee is as a playground for his family. Monroe, a dentist, and his wife, a physical therapist, have two children under the age of 5. The family has been using its Milwaukee condo practically every other weekend since December.

"We just spend time together," said Monroe, who became acquainted with Milwaukee through trips to Summerfest with his parents while growing up in Chicago. Monroe earned his bachelor's degree at Marquette University in 1991 before attending dental school at the University of Illinois.

On a typical visit to Milwaukee, the Monroes might go as a family to Betty Brinn Children's Museum or to the Milwaukee County Zoo. They often visit friends who live in Wauwatosa or dine at a local restaurant.

At night, the kids might stay with a nanny while the adults enjoy downtown night life. Their favorite? Centanni piano bar, in the Third Ward. The family also is looking forward to Summerfest and the summer boating season with their 30-foot cruiser.

Boating is a big part of what prompted Jacobs to buy a riverfront condo. He and his wife already were familiar with Milwaukee, where Laurie sometimes went antique shopping in the Third Ward and Walker's Point. John Jacobs stumbled upon the Waterfront when he saw a sign advertising the development while picking up several antiques Laurie Jacobs had ordered. He signed the purchase agreement that same day.

Paul Radice and his wife, Sandy, became acquainted with Milwaukee around 20 years ago, when their daughter, Dawne, attended Marquette.

After graduating, Dawne got married and ended up staying in the area, so the Radices make frequent trips from their home near Valparaiso, Ind., to see their three grandchildren. With retirement looming, they decided last August to buy a condo at The Harbor Front, 601 E. Erie St. The Radices expect the condo to become their primary home within three or four years.

Until then, Paul, an electrical contractor, and Sandy, the associate director of Valparaiso University's dining service, are staying at their condo roughly two weekends each month. They enjoy Milwaukee's restaurants, museums, theaters and Brewers games.

Attraction to Atmosphere

The Radices also like the vital atmosphere of downtown living.

"We wanted to be somewhere where there was a lot of activity," Paul Radice said.

Some out-of-state buyers are picking up Milwaukee's most expensive condos.

Scott Roberts grew up on the south side, graduated from Marquette in 1985 and earned his master's degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987. Roberts has since lived in Boston, Bermuda and suburban Chicago and is president of Chicago-based Deerfield Capital Management LLC, an investment firm. In February, Roberts bought a condo at Kilbourn Tower, 923 E. Kilbourn Ave., one of downtown's priciest buildings with an average unit price of $900,000.

Roberts, his wife and their four children use it as a place to stay after Marquette and Bucks basketball games. It also serves as a convenient stopping point between their home, in Lake Forest, Ill., and their summer home, on Big Cedar Lake near West Bend. The family is looking forward to Summerfest, which will be within walking distance of Kilbourn Tower.

Roberts and his wife, Elizabeth, had considered buying a condo in downtown Chicago. But the high quality design of both Kilbourn Tower and its neighbor, University Club Tower, caught their attention, Roberts said. Also, the increased development in and around downtown, including new shops and restaurants in the Third Ward and on E. Brady St., helped clinch the decision to favor Milwaukee over Chicago.

"There's a lot of stuff going on that wasn't there 10 years ago," Roberts said.

However, the increased Illini focus on Milwaukee could have a downside, Jacobs joked.

"I hope all these damn Chicago people don't spoil it," he said, with a laugh.