By Alby Gallun – Crain’s Chicago Business
The Gidwitz family wants to build nearly 500 apartments on a busy retail strip in Skokie, the biggest residential project in the north suburb in a dozen years.
The Skokie Village Board last night overwhelmingly approved zoning changes for the two-building project at the intersection of Touhy and Linder avenues, about a mile west of the Edens Expressway and just north of the Village Crossing shopping center. It’s part of a broader wave of apartment construction across suburban Chicago amid red-hot demand for rental housing.
The Gidwitzes have owned the 6.2-acre site for nearly six decades, but they’re better known for shampoo and politics than they are for real estate. The family owned Helene Curtis Industries, a personal-care products company with brands including Suave shampoo and Degree antiperspirant, selling the business in 1996 to Unilever for about $770 million.
More recently, patriarch Ron Gidwitz has kept himself busy as a top Republican fundraiser, including serving as Illinois finance chairman for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. While in the White House, Trump appointed Gidwitz ambassador to Belgium and acting U.S. envoy to the European Union.
Gidwitz’s son, Scott Gidwitz, a former executive at the John Buck Co., is leading the Skokie project. At the meeting last night, he told trustees that he had has been exploring development options for the property for more than three years. The parcel currently includes three single-story buildings that are “functionally obsolete,” he said.
Unable to come up with a workable retail project on the site, Gidwitz switched to apartments, culminating with the proposal approved by the village board last night.
Designed by Chicago-based FitzGerald Associates, the development will include a pair of nearly identical seven-story buildings constructed in two phases. The first one will include 251 apartments, the second, 243.
“It brings a fresh housing stock into an area of Skokie that will thrive as a result of it,” attorney Steven Elrod, who represents the Gidwitz family, told the board at its meeting.
With 494 units, it would be the biggest residential project in Skokie since 2010, when Optima, a Glencoe-based developer, completed Optima Old Orchard Woods, a 660-unit condominium development next to the Edens Expressway.
The Gidwitz project will also include about 30,000 square feet of retail space, including about 5,000 for a cannabis dispensary.
Now that the development has the village’s blessing, Scott Gidwitz must line up construction financing to pay for it. Gidwitz and a representative of the family investment business, Riverbend Industries, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Scott Gidwitz now works as a principal at Bissell Street, a Chicago-based real estate investment and development firm he co-founded. His dad, Ron Gidwitz, who also attended the meeting, has owned apartments in the past, including Evergreen Terrace, a notorious 356-unit low-income housing project in Joliet that the city’s mayor once called a “public nuisance.” The city seized the property in 2014.
Though no one on the village board spoke out against the project, several speakers at the meeting raised concerns that it included no units set aside as affordable for low- and moderate-income tenants. Unlike nearby suburbs like Evanston, Northbrook and Highland Park, Skokie does not have an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring developers to include affordable units in projects that require a zoning change.
“My question to you is, why not make this new development a mixed-income development?” Gail Schechter, executive director of Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly, a Skokie nonprofit, asked trustees. “Skokie’s housing stock that is affordable to low- and moderate-income individuals and families is diminishing, and the shortage is even worse if these households also include people with disabilities.”
Apartment living in the Chicago suburbs has become even more expensive the past few years as rents have soared. The median net suburban rent rose to a record $1.87 per square foot in the first quarter, up 17% from a year earlier, according to the Chicago office of Integra Realty Resources, an appraisal and consulting firm.
That’s one big reason developers have been building apartments so eagerly in the suburbs. In the first quarter, developers completed 1,500 rental units in the suburbs, and another 3,200 or so were under construction, making 2022 one of the biggest years for suburban multifamily development going back to at least the mid-1990s, according to Integra.
Skokie and neighboring suburbs have participated in the boom. Earlier this year, Chicago developer John Murphy wrapped up construction of Highpoint at 8000 North, a 153-unit luxury tower in downtown Skokie. In nearby Lincolnwood, a joint venture including Chicago-based Tucker Development is building District 1860, a mixed-use project on the site of the former Purple Hotel that will include 299 apartments.