Thanks to the North-South Tollway's southern extension, which opened to traffic almost two years ago, more than a dozen communities and townships are poised for a building boom.
These areas, which had previously been very difficult to access, are now within the realm of possibility for prospective homeowners and those looking to establish new businesses. A whole new frontier has opened up in the Southwest suburbs of Lemont, Homer Glen, Lockport, New Lenox and even more distant places like Manhattan.
"The extension of I-355 opened up those communities like nothing else could have," said Chris Naatz, Midwest area director of marketing for Pulte Homes, which has a community in Lockport.
"Our Cedar Ridge community immediately saw a change in where prospective buyers were coming from. It greatly increased our buyer pool," he explained. "Before I-355 opened, we would never have seen people from Bloomingdale or Downers Grove shopping for a home in Lockport.
"The extension has taken 20 to 25 minutes off most people's trips into the area," Naatz said. "So it has expanded the geography of where people can work and still live in Lockport.
"I see those towns along the new I-355 southern extension corridor as a great investment opportunity for the future and once the downturn ends, I am sure that we will be building other new home communities in the area," he said.
Leigh Nevers, director of sales for Lennar Homes, agrees.
"We started to see a pretty decent spike in people looking at Singer Landing, our townhouse community in Lemont, after I-355 opened and before the downturn hit because it really helps alleviate congestion in that area," she said.
And even during the current downturn, Lennar has been able to sell its inventory homes and maintain its pricing at the community, without offering deep discounts, thanks to the accessibility offered by the new tollway and the nearby Metra station. In fact, they only have 18 of their 48 townhouses still available.
"In the future we will absolutely be looking to build again along this new corridor," Nevers said.
Homebuilder Riordan and Murphy has been putting up custom homes in the Homer Glen area since 1985, so it is well-known to locals. But Rich Murphy, one of the firm's principals, said he has seen a lot more inquiries from other areas since I-355 opened. Unfortunately, he added, those visits have not translated into sales increases, thanks to the economic downturn, which began around the same time the tollway extension opened.
"The addition of I-355 certainly benefits people who have to travel north to work or need to get onto I-80," Murphy said. "It seems that people are definitely looking in this direction for the future."
In May Schaumburg-based William Ryan Homes reopened its Maple Hill single-family community in Lockport after closing it to retool the product.
"And we have already had one sale, but we haven't seen the influx of people from the outside that we expected," said Debbie Beaver, vice president of sales and marketing.
"People just aren't used to going that way yet. But we are confident that once more people understand how accessible it now is, and how gorgeous the area is with the hills and valleys that you don't see in Schaumburg, I think that we will start seeing sales," she said.
"Before I-355 there was just no good way to get to Lockport. It would take me an hour and 15 minutes from my office in Schaumburg," Beaver added. "Now it takes more like 35 minutes.
"Once the economy improves, we will definitely be looking to expand along the I-355 corridor, like we did along I-88 and I-90 earlier," she said.
Even the communities like Manhattan located south of where I-355 feeds into I-80 are expecting to reap the benefits of the extended roadway.
"When they were still working on I-355 back in 2005 and 2006, we started noticing people from Naperville, in particular, signing into our guest book and actually buying at our Butternut Ridge community in Manhattan," said Bryan Nooner of Distinctive Companies.
"The transportation to this area has really improved. In fact, it is easy to get anywhere now so we feel certain that this will spur growth and then jobs," Nooner said. "And when jobs stabilize in Illinois and homebuilding picks up again, we feel certain that people will return to Will County. In the meantime, we have diversified to wait out the market."
The municipalities and businesses along the new extension have also felt the impact of the I-355 extension. In fact, thanks to the extension and its rising traffic count, the Illinois General Assembly has approved $71 million for widening 159th Street between I-355 and Will-Cook Road.
"We are very excited about the widening of 143rd and 159th Streets, which have just been rural routes up to this point, and the extension of sewer lines along 159th Street, too," said Paula Wallrich, village manager for Homer Glen.
"There is now good interest in our commercial property. We have four or five projects which are under consideration or have been recently completed," she said.
And there is lots of room for future development in Homer Glen. "We currently have 3,000 acres of land zoned for future residential development and 1,300 acres of land zoned for future commercial development within the village," Wallrich said.
Other development like the construction of Silver Cross Hospital and the future development of a large community park with athletic fields along 159th Street can also be traced back to I-355, according to Wallrich.
But with the good comes some challenges, Homer Glen Mayor Jim Daley said.
"The day I-355 was opened Homer Glen experienced increased traffic volumes on 159th street and, to a lesser degree, on 143rd. This is a good thing. It certainly provides easy access to our businesses and exposure to all the developable land that we have along that corridor that has great commercial potential," Daley said.
"The difficulty is making sure we have adequate infrastructure to accommodate the increased traffic volumes," he continued. "We need to see 159th street widened, sooner rather than later. We also have inadequate utilities serving the properties in this area. There is great potential for commercial development but we have to get the utilities there to make it happen. So in the long run it is a positive for Homer Glen. But in the short run, we have some issues to resolve."
The business owners in downtown Lemont have even bigger issues with the new tollway. They lament the fact that traffic has been diverted from Lemont Road, according to Ryan Sullivan, president of the Lemont Area Chamber of Commerce.
"The restaurants in town are no longer packed and the businesses are no longer getting drivers who were backed up in traffic on Lemont Road stopping in to patronize them," Sullivan said.
"We desperately need to get signage out at the Lemont exit from I-355 at 127th Street because it is so residential right around the exit itself, that drivers don't realize that if they get off and go half a mile to the east, there are all kinds of businesses there," he said.
Everyone who is experiencing the changes I-355 is bringing has the Illinois Tollway Authority and forward-looking planners like those at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to thank.
The planning agency and its predecessor, the Northern Illinois Planning Commission, are the agencies that over the years have been charged with looking at the metropolitan area's existing transportation system in light of what growth is expected in the next 20 to 30 years.
"We try to anticipate where we are going to experience problems in the future based on where development is going," said Don Kopec, deputy executive director for planning and programming at the agency.
"We had actually been studying the area where the I-355 extension was built since the 1970s," he said. "There was no good north-south route between I-55 and I-80 in that area. All you had were a lot of clogged arterial routes which made it difficult for people in the area to commute to their jobs and it was difficult to move transit traffic through the area, too."
According to the Illinois Tollway Authority Web site, "the extension reduces travel times by 20 percent and provides a more direct route between residences in Will County and areas where jobs are more plentiful, such as the O'Hare area, therefore benefiting the entire Chicagoland region."
While work on the 121/2-mile stretch of road, including a 1.3-mile bridge over the Des Plaines River Valley, only took three years, the preparation time took many years due, in part, to a lawsuit initiated by several environmental groups, Kopec said.
Now, when tied in to the rest of I-355 and Route 53 further north, the tollway, in effect, becomes a second ring road around the city and an alternative to I-294. Kopec said the agency is also studying a northern extension of the tollway up to Grayslake where it would then cut east and west to Route 12 and I-94. But he admits he has no idea when or if that will actually be built.