Roosevelt Collection Update (via sloopin.com)

Sloopin, one of my favorite neighborhood blogs for ear-to-the-ground news, just posted this update on Roosevelt Collection’s latest retail announcement. Very exciting news for the South Loop…but we’re still waiting to hear about that often-rumored Apple Store! Check it out…

http://www.sloopin.com/2012/11/roosevelt-collection-announces-variety.html

Roosevelt Collection is just a few blocks west of the CTA Roosevelt Red Line stop.

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On the Go: The Wrigley Building’s Facelift

It’s hard to believe that it took so long, but this past summer, the City of Chicago finally granted Historic Landmark status to the Chicago River’s most elegant and universally loved building.  Now, nearly 90 years after its birth and a recent change of ownership, work is underway to deliver a series of interior and exterior restorations to the Wrigley Building (http://www.thewrigleybuilding.com/news.html).

While much of the ground floor is currently blocked from view, this quick shot of the newly exposed masonry columns provides an interesting glimpse behind the glazed terra cotta facade. This rare peek into the past also makes us ponder the future of our great buildings. For this writer, at least, it calls to mind the ruins of Rome and Athens, whose brilliant marble skins have long since been stripped away, leaving nothing more than columns that look very much like what we can briefly now see on Michigan Avenue.

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The Wrigley Building is within walking distance from multiple CTA bus stops, as well as the State/Lake and Grand train stations.

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On the Go: Jones College Prep

The new Jones College Prep building on south State Street seems to grow larger by the day, as construction crews continue to fill out the interior of the structural skeleton that went up this summer. The last we heard, the school is slated to open its doors to over 1,200 students next fall.

There is apparently some controversy over the fate of the current facility that is located on the north end of the same block (see http://www.reusejones.org and http://blog.chicagoarchitecture.info/2012/09/26/status-update-new-jones-prep-high-school/). However, there is no arguing that the new building will be a welcome addition to the South Loop, both for its sleek, modern design and its positive social impact on the neighborhood.

Jones College Prep is located immediately adjacent to the CTA’s Harrison Red Line stop.

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On the Go: The Big Tree

Yes, we are only 4 days post-Halloween, but the inexorable march of holiday cheer rolls on. A 64-foot Colorado Spruce from the northwest ‘burbs is now standing in Daley Plaza, which means that the holidays are just around the corner (well, kind of).

If you haven’t attended before, make sure to check out the tree lighting event on November 20, or at least the Christkindlmarket holiday village that opens on the same day. Even if the holiday season isn’t your cup of cheer, the hot wine and German beers are reason enough to make the trip.

Head over to http://www.christkindlmarket.com for more details.

Daley Plaza is served by the CTA blue line’s Washington stop.

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I-PASS Upgrade – Is it really necessary?

Here’s a quick one for all you Chicagoland motorists out there… Occasional or otherwise. Even if you drive on the tollway every day, do you really need an I-PASS transponder that beeps every time you go through a toll plaza or booth? Is it worth the millions of dollars that it will cost to upgrade the system? That is the question that is being asked at this very moment.

The Illinois Tollway is polling it users to find out if there is a desire to have I-PASS transponders that emit an audible tone each time it communicates a toll payment with the system. In my opinion, this upgrade is not going to be worth the effort or the capital expenditure. The tollway system already has a visual system that notifies you with a yellow or blue light when you pass through a toll booth. Blue confirms payment and account status while yellow alerts the driver that the toll was not paid or that the account needs to be managed in some way. So why replace thousands of transponders that work perfectly well? To get the point, the audible tone is a luxury and not a necessity of the system. If a driver only uses high speed toll plazas and does not regularly drive through booths equipped with the visual confirmation system, then that driver may need to check his or her account online occasionally to ensure that it paid and current.

The I-PASS system is a luxury and convenience to the users of our tollways, one which not all metropolitan areas can afford. It is also a direct manner in which to fund the maintenance and expansion of our expressways, which benefits the area as a whole. The high speed toll plazas are a convenience and cost saver to all drivers as they lessen congestion and increase vehicle fuel efficiency. It is also my understanding that, if approved, the entire system will need to be upgraded, rather than simply upgrading the transponders themselves. In the end, the cost of upgrade will be funded by the users and this capital will be taken away from other more beneficial uses and capital projects. To participate in the Illinois Tollway survey on the matter, visit:

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/TollwayTransponderSurvey

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5 Reasons Why Chicago’s Ravenswood Elementary is a Hidden Gem

Ravenswood Elementary is a public neighborhood elementary school in Chicago, Illinois.  Families that live in the attendance boundaries of Ravenswood Elementary can send their children to Ravenwood Elementary for free.  However, this school flies under the radar of parents who are exploring CPS public schools for their children.  I know because of I run a website where parents can search for properties by school district, and Ravenswood Elementary is not often selected in the search criteria.  Here are the top 5 reasons why Ravenswood Elementary is a hidden gem:

5.  The MLS (the multiple listing service where real estate brokers list property for sale) identifies the neighborhood surrounding Ravenswood Elementary incorrectly.    Raveswood Elementary is in…..you guessed it…..Ravenswood!  Ravenswood is one of the most family friendly neighborhoods in Chicago with excellent access to public transportation.  It is only 20-25 minutes to downtown on the Brown Line and, get this, 12 minutes to downtown on the Metra.  Some of the best restaurants in the city are right here, and the shopping and nightlife are great as well.  Real Estate in this area is harder to sell because the MLS will not or can not update their neighborhood boundaries, and as a result, Ravenswood Elementary sometimes gets overlooked as a viable option for parents moving to the City.  If you are moving to the City and you are looking in Ravenswood/Lincoln Square, make sure your realtor is showing you all options in Ravenswood/Lincoln Square, which extends to Clark Avenue to the east.

4.  Ravenswood Elementary test scores are better than they appear at first glance.   Ravenswood has approximately 18% special needs students, which is nearly double the average percentage of special needs students in CPS schools.  At Ravenswood Elementary the special needs student’s test scores are included in the ISAT composite score.  Some schools in Chicago do not have special needs student take the ISAT at all, opting instead for a test called the IAA.  So, not only does Ravenswood support a higher percentage of special needs students, but also some other schools are not including special needs students in their ISAT composite scores.    Finally, Ravenswood elementary is not a gifted magnet school or selective enrollment school, so they do not benefit from the high test scores among gifted children, which are again included in the ISAT composite scores.  The end result is that, on the surface, Ravenswood test scores do not compare favorably with other elite schools within CPS, but if you dig below the surface, you will see that Ravenswood Elementary test scores are right up there with the best.

3.  Ravenswood has one of the smallest average class sizes among CPS public schools.  The average class size at Ravenswood Elementary is 25 students.  This is no accident.  It is a specific goal of the school to keep class sizes down, and much of the discretionary budget at Ravenswood Elementary goes towards additional teachers salaries.  Despite a deteriorating budget, the school has managed to keep class sizes low through the fund raising efforts of organizations like the Friends of Ravenswood.

2.  Ravenswood is a Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Cluster School, and the program permeates through every classroom in the school.

Not only are we a Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Cluster school, where our students receive art, drama, music and gym at least once each week, our arts teachers also work with our classroom teachers to develop additional arts integration units where the arts are integrated into core subjects such as math and science to allow students to develop a deeper understanding of the material.  -From the Ravenswood website

Ms. Heather Connolly is the principal at Ravenswood, and she provides an example of a geometry class where the students were testing low in one small section of geometry.  The arts teacher collaborated with the geometry teacher and developed a project that incorporated the missing concepts, which involved picking a Chicago skyscraper and building a scale model.  On the next round of testing, the student scores on this section of geometry were the highest scores on the test.  Ravenswood students don’t just get an arts teacher, they get an entire curriculum that utilizes art, performing arts, and music.

And the number one reason why Ravenswood Elementary is a diamond among Chicago Public Schools:

1.  Heather Connolly and the Friends of Ravenswood School organization.  Ms. Connolly has been the school principal for 5 years, and in that time she has hired 75% of the current staff at the school, increased average ISAT composite scores by 11%, all while experiencing a budget decrease of 40% in discretionary spending.  She is a strong, energetic principal who was selected by the LSC, with input from the Friends of Ravenswood parents/community group, and she has had a wonderful influence on the school.  The Friends of Ravenswood School is a non-profit started by Wendy Vasquez and several moms from the school over 7 years ago, and the program focuses on community-building and fundraising for Ravenswood Elementary.

The community is rallying behind Ravenswood Elementary, and the school is not just beginning a turnaround, the school has passed the tipping point and it IS a great option for neighborhood families.  Wendy Vasquez has two children at the school:

I no longer have anxiety about which teachers my children will be assigned at the beginning of the school year because they are all good.   -Wendy Vasquez

Parents moving to Chicago should take a look at Ravenswood Elementary, because not only is it a fine institution, the neighborhood is awesome as well.  The recipe has been in place for 5 years:  a strong principal who is forward thinking, and a parent organization that is active and doing things to support the school.

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Chicago Elementary Schools – Find the Hidden Gems

I interviewed many Chicago moms in preparation for a new website that helps parents locate good schools in affordable areas, and one thing I learned is this:  if a Chicago family has a child in a Chicago public school, they probably heard about the school through friends or family.

When my wife and I were searching for schools for our daughter, we heard about all of the ‘usual suspects’: Lincoln, Burley, Bell, Audubon, Coonley, and a few others.   These were the schools that our friends were aware of, and although we did investigate a few additional schools on our own, we ended up moving near one of the ‘usual suspects.’ As of last September, our daughter is a very happy preschooler.

But, as it turns out, there were many other great options here in Chicago that my family didn’t even know about.  I’ve done some digging using https://schoolsparrow.com and have found a few strong CPS schools that are located in more affordable areas of Chicago.

Here’s an example: if I search for a home in north Chicago with at least 3 bedrooms under $250,000, and I rank schools by ISAT test scores, which are the top five schools that have homes for sale right now in this price range?  See Table 1 for the answer:

Table 1: The Diamonds in the Rough. (as of June 2012)

School Average Listing Price of Homes for Sale with at least 3 Bedrooms Least Expensive 3 Bedroom Home for Sale (click to see listing)
1. Sauganash $483,000 $185,000 minimum.
2. Oriole Park $333,000 $200,000
3. Canty $248,000 $115,000
4. Soloman $444,000 $200,000
5. Norwoood Park $567,000 $250,000

Admittedly, I do not know much about these schools other than students perform very well on standardized tests.  But looking back, I wish we had investigated them before making a decision on the neighborhood school our daughter now attends.  We love our current school and might have made the same choice, but certainly the five schools listed above deserved an initial look, especially given the financial implications of the drastically reduced housing costs.  A year ago, I didn’t even know these options existed.

So, how do the ‘usual suspects’ compare with these diamonds in the rough?

Table 2: The Usual Suspects. (as of June 2012)

School Average Current Listing Price of Homes with at least 3 Bedrooms Least Expensive 3 Bedroom Home for Sale (click link to see listing)
Lincoln $1,991,000 $300,000
Burley $992,000 $389,000
Bell $993,000 $325,000
Coonley $755,000 $185,000
Audubon $813,000 $375,000

Within these school boundaries, you’re paying for more than the school, you are also paying for the lifestyle and the brand name.

So as you’re searching for a new community for you and your growing family, keep in mind that there are many possibilities out there for parents who want a wonderful home and a stellar education for their kids.

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Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building

I was wandering south through the Loop yesterday and snapped this photo of Roosevelt University’s new(-ish) 32-story building on Wabash, between Van Buren and Congress. The as-yet unnamed tower (alternately referred to as the “Wabash Building” and “Vertical Campus” on the Roosevelt website), was completed earlier this year, but I realized I knew close to nothing about why it was built and what it would be used for. A quick search on the web revealed some of the details. The tower contains a mashup of classrooms, offices and 17 floors of residential-space capable of housing over 600 students. It is also environmentally and historically/architecturally responsible; the building is LEED-certified (which our friend ConservationCoyote would appreciate), and also maintains the historic facade of the Fine Arts Annex (visible in the lower left of the photo below).

But practicalities aside, I think the most intriguing aspect of the building is the way it contrasts so dramatically against its surroundings, while acknowledging and complementing them at the same time. The Wabash Building’s angled cutbacks, multicolored blue glass, and thin, hyper-technological look stand out brightly against the stark, regular red lines of the CNA building behind it and the 19th Century Auditorium building in front (as viewed from the south). But at the same time, if you view the building from the north, the rectangular black facade seems to hint at the repeating black lines and minimalist Modern style of Mies van der Rohe‘s Federal Plaza, 330 North Wabash and other similarly styled buildings in the neighborhood. And in a slightly more abstract way, the wavy blue glass panels also tie the building into its surroundings by simulating the color and patterns of the Lake Michigan shore on a clear summer day.

If you take one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s walking tours (which I highly recommend), you’ll hear all about how architects often pay homage to the buildings and builders that came before them, and also to the physical location in which the building sits, by incorporating design elements that reflect a buildings surroundings. I think Roosevelt University, and the architects at local firm VOA, did an outstanding job of achieving that goal, resulting in a great new addition to the north/south skyline of the Loop.

Check out the Wabash Building by taking the L to the Jackson Red Line stop, or get off the Brown, Orange, Pink, or Purple Lines at Harold Washington Library.

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Chicago Public Schools – A new era

It is an exciting time to be in Chicago.  Many Chicago public neighborhood schools have seen a recent increase in the quality of education provided to students, and at the same time many Chicago parents are feeling stuck in their homes and unable to move.  I think these two events combined could result in a swift and permanent decrease in the trend of young families choosing to move to the suburbs after having children.  Perhaps a small sliver of a silver lining in this real estate debacle.

Chicagoans purchased thousands of homes during the real estate boom, and now after the correction many of these Chicagoans have growing families and are evaluating their school options.  For some of these families, the original plan to move to the suburbs is not as easy as it used to be.  Not only is it hard for people to sell their homes in this environment, but also the tightening of the credit market has made it more difficult to obtain a mortgage for a new home.  The result is there are hundreds, maybe thousands of families in Chicago that, but for the current real estate market, would be well on their way to suburbia.

But there is good news for these families: many Chicago public schools have seen dramatic increases in quality over the past 10 years, and some of these schools are real options for Chicago parents.  So how did this positive change happen seemingly out of nowhere? The book How to Walk to School is a true story about how a group of involved parents and a strong principal turned around Nettlehorst Elementary in Chicago’s prestigious Lakeview neighborhood.  The book sets an example of the formula for success:  a strong parent organization paired with strong leadership at the school.  This formula has been repeated at many schools in Chicago, and the trend is continuing with new parent groups being organized all over the city.  The list of good neighborhood schools in Chicago is long and growing.

It is an exciting time to be a Chicagoan because today we can confidently raise our children in this awesome city, without stretching our budgets to pay for private school.  The current state of the real estate market will speed up the rate at which this realization sinks in, and soon we expect Chicago to be considered a shining example of what involved parents and strong leadership can accomplish in a relatively short time period.

SchoolSparrow.com is a good place to start looking for a good school and home in Chicago, and this iPhone and iPad app will help along the way by identifying and providing information about the CPS neighborhood school in whose boundaries you are standing at the moment.  These tools have been created by New Urban Property Services, a real estate brokerage company in Chicago that focuses on Transit and Schools.

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Football in the City

Its football season again… and in more than one sense of the word.  When most Chicagoans get excited about football, they are talking about the NFL central division or watching their alma mater make a run for the Big 10 title game.  But the ancient game of “football”, more commonly known as soccer, is a growing sport in this country with millions of fans nationwide and is by far the most popular sport in the world.  So why put the city’s professional soccer team in Bridgeview 15 miles from city center?

Chicago is a diverse, multicultural, world-class city.  It’s known for its lake-front parks, great food and numerous museums and other attractions; all accessible on our extensive public transit system. Even the sports venues that characterize our north, south, and west side neighborhoods are an integral part of the hometown feel we get when enjoying city-life in Chicago.  But the Chicago Fire don’t even play within city limits… My point here is that we have 3 million people to support a city-centric team but are forced to drive out to Toyota Park to watch a live soccer game.  As a city-dweller and a soccer fan, I hope to see some games played at Soldier Field in the coming seasons.  If an out-of-state college football team can play there and attract thousands of visitors, I can guarantee a good showing of soccer fans at a Fire game played downtown against the LA Galaxy or a professional team from Europe.  If Chicago soccer is going to grow, it needs to be played in Chicago.

My personal frustration on the topic stems from my most recent experience going to see the Fire play at Toyota Park this season.  Having headed out of the city with an hour and 20 minutes budgeted to drive the 15 miles to Bridgeview, I thought we would arrive with plenty of time to walk around the stadium and stand in line for concessions before finding our seats.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The venue thoroughfare is not equipped to handle the mass of traffic that a Chicago Fire home game generates.  We sat for more than 40 minutes inching south on Harlem avenue with the hundreds of other cars full of frustrated soccer fans.  I watched my dashboard anxiously as the minutes of game time ticked by and my average miles per gallon shrunk from 28 to 12. I couldn’t help but think of all the other cars idling along, burning hundreds of gallons of gas as we sat in the street. By the time we arrived at the stadium, there were only 8 minutes left in the first half…  1 full price ticket for 1 full half of a soccer game.  Not the best $50 I’ve ever spent.

The next time I see them play, I’ll be taking the “El” and it’ll be with a view of the city skyline from Soldier Field. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long for the powers that be to make it happen.

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