By Dennis Rodkin

Crain’s Chicago Business

October 10, 2016

 

Naperville once seemed a rich opportunity for homebuilders eager to sell a four-bedroom, quarter-acre slice of the American Dream for $700,000 and up. Then, in 2006, the bottom fell out, and Ashwood Park—only one-third built—ground to a near-halt. Ten years after the crash, it’s still a monument to the limits of suburban sprawl.

In the summer of 2006, there were few, if any, clouds hanging over the plan to build Ashwood Park on about 210 acres west of 248th Street in Naperville.

The western suburb was in the midst of a growth spurt that was forecast to bring more than 83,000 new jobs to the town by 2030, generating demand for homes. The Ashwood Park site lay in the southwesterly path of growth in Naperville, which since the middle of the 20th century had been expanding, seemingly inexorably, one subdivision at a time. And Money magazine had recently dubbed Naperville the third-best place to live in America.

“Naperville was bulletproof,” Steve Dano recalls. Dano heads sales at Crestview Builders, which was poised to develop the northern half of Ashwood Park while Macom did the southern half, for a total of 504 homes with prices that were expected to start in the $700,000s and go past $1.5 million. The two companies had decades-long track records building homes and neighborhoods in Naperville through good times and recessions.

Then, starting in September 2006, the housing crash hit.

A decade later, at least 150 of the lots at Ashwood Park are empty, homes built since the crash come in at price points as much as 40 percent below those built in the heady days of 2006, and the handsome $7 million Ashwood Park clubhouse, built to provide recreational facilities to the occupants of several hundred high-end homes, is staffed only eight hours a week.

“Naperville was bulletproof,” recalls Steve Dano of Crestview Builders, developer of the northern half of Ashwood Park.

“I never would have expected this in 2006,” Dano says. He’s not the only one. What first appeared to be a nationwide tap on the brakes after a few years of dizzying growth in home prices turned out to be a steep downslope that took with it the home equity of millions of homeowners, and the sunny futures of many homebuilding companies.

The Chicago area has been one of the slowest regions nationwide to recover from the downturn, and 10 years after prices peaked in September 2006, the S&P Case-Shiller Index reports that across the region, single-family home prices here were about 18 percent below the peak as of July, the latest data available. And since the downturn, the region has struggled with one of the nation’s heftiest foreclosure burdens—at the depth of the crisis, in 2010, nearly 139,000 Chicago-area homes were in some stage of foreclosure.

Around that time, Ashwood Park looked like a modern ghost town, with one-third of its planned 500 homes built and vast stretches of weedy empty lots lining most of its paved streets. “It was sad to see,” says Terri Christian, a Coldwell Banker agent in Naperville. Ashwood Park “was supposed to be a stunning place, but it was deserted.”

The recovery here was impeded by the Chicago area’s high general unemployment rate during the down years and the low rate of job creation since, as well as its slow processing of the wave of foreclosures because Illinois requires a judge’s involvement in resolving them. Rising property taxes and a huge public pension debt have also played roles in holding back demand. The fastest-recovering cities have largely been tech hubs and warm-weather places—or both.

The Chicago area’s recovery has accelerated a bit this year, but the gap between where the market was at its pre-crash high and where it stands now yawns like a chasm. “The fall that came after that peak changed the landscape for housing and what we expect from it,” says Geoff Smith, executive director of DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies.

The players whose expectations have gone through perhaps the most painful adjustment are those who bought homes at the peak and have to sell at well below that level.

That’s been a decade-long story all over the region, and Ashwood Park is not exempt. A home on Corktree Road that sold for slightly over $1 million during the peak-price month, September 2006, sold last May at 32 percent off.

The crash changed the prospects for Ashwood Park, and for the firms building it.

The south-half partner, Macom, is gone, collapsed under a series of foreclosures of its projects in Oswego, Naperville and elsewhere. Macom had been in business since 1949 (although under that name only since 1960) and built more than 30 Naperville subdivisions before closing down sometime around 2010, according to Bill Novack, director of transportation, engineering and development for the city.

Much of Macom’s share of Ashwood Park is now in the hands of Ryan Homes, with prices starting at under $510,000—about 30 percent below the starting price Macom announced for the site in late 2005.

At the height of the building boom, Novack estimates, there were 88 homebuilders working in Naperville. “Everyone was building homes then,” he says. “It was the best business to be in.” The bust took that figure down to “maybe a dozen,” Novack says, though in recent years it’s grown back to around 30. Homebuilding has been in a trough throughout the region, not only in Naperville. Builders sold 25,105 new homes in the Chicago area in 2006, according to Schaumburg-based industry tracker Tracy Cross & Associates, and in 2015 sold less than 15 percent of that.

Ashwood Park’s north-half partner, Crestview, in 2006 expected to be done with the project by 2011 or so. It’s now about 90 percent finished, says Dano, Crestview’s sales chief. “We should be out of there in the next two years,” he says. That would mean what was once slated to be a five-year project wraps up in 12 years.

“You would have expected those guys to be sold out in a few years,” Novack says. “That’s how it had been for a long time in Naperville. You’d build something, sell it out easily, and go build something else.”

Crestview dialed back its expectations for Ashwood Park in at least two other ways: It sold off half the 251 lots it owned in the development, Dano says, and is selling what it builds at prices well below the original goals. A decade ago, Crestview’s homes in the neighborhood were mostly selling for more than $800,000 and up past $1.2 million, he says, “but now the norm is between $600,000 and the $800,000s.” Crestview advertises that it can sell homebuyers a lot and the house on it “in the upper $400,000s.”

Several builders bought lots from Crestview and are now building homes there, though the price points are lower than what was envisioned 10 years ago.

Early-years buyers at Ashwood Park took a hit when it came time to sell. Among the biggest: the sellers of an 11,000-square-foot house on Teak Circle. They bought it in 2007 for $2.46 million and sold it five years later for less than half that, $1.05 million. The home sold again this summer for just under $1.2 million. Another Ashwood Park home from 2007, a 4,600-square-footer on Chinaberry Lane that went for $924,000 that year, resold in July for $750,000.

The Chinaberry sellers “were very disappointed,” says Rosemary West, the Re/Max Professionals Select agent who represented them. (They decline to comment.) “We did everything but stand on our heads to sell at a better price, but it’s not happening at Ashwood Park.”

There were 61 homes for sale in Ashwood Park at the start of October, 11 of them existing homes and the rest either under construction or proposed. The existing homes were priced from the $800,000s to over $1 million, while the new and proposed houses were mostly from the low $500,000s to the $800,000s.

West says the latter-years shift toward less expensive homes in the neighborhood “definitely makes it feel like a different place than people were buying in” when Ashwood Park opened in 2006. “The exclusivity isn’t there.”

Of course, buyers benefit from the lower prices. Christian, the Coldwell Banker agent, last year represented buyers who got a newly built five-bedroom, 4,300-square-foot home on Shumard Lane in Ashwood Park for $638,500.

“Ten years ago, that would have been a million-dollar home,” Christian says. “It’s still hard to believe they got all that home for that kind of money.”

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