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Hot Suburban Downtowns to Watch Post-COVID

The pandemic has temporarily changed perspectives on the classic urban vs suburban debate, even for those looking for that “urban” lifestyle. Modern suburban apartments and condos do offer lower costs per square foot. With many working at home for the foreseeable future, sometimes with kids at home, that’s a value proposition that gets a major boost during a pandemic. And for all the attention that city development gets, many suburban downtowns were already trending. According to Integra Realty Resources, around 3,500 new suburban apartment units were completed in 2019, which was by far the highest total since at least 1996. Over 13,000 more were in the pipeline late last year, although we can expect some of these to be pushed back or cancelled.

These units probably do appeal to the common stereotype of the couple who like being out in the suburbs but commute into their city jobs by train, but two other markets for suburban apartments could be growing even faster. Those would be empty nesters–specifically those who have decided to forego lawn mowing and home maintenance for walkable restaurants and entertainment–and city millennials who work in the suburbs, who have realized they can enjoy some of the urban lifestyle they’re used to while living much closer to work.

But not all suburbs are created equal. Even accounting for a slowdown in development and ailing small businesses, which suburban downtowns should you keep an eye on for 2021?

Fingers crossed that summer 2021 will be a “normal” Chicagoland summer. If so, Arlington Heights would be a prime place to be. A thriving downtown full of restaurants is always a good time, but especially amidst COVID recovery, the area should see great benefit and energy from four tremendous annual festivals: June’s Promenade of Art, July’s Frontier Days Festival, August’s Taste of Arlington Heights, and September’s Arlington on Tap Craft Beer Fest. More affordable housing options very close to Arlington Heights can also be found in Palatine, which has a growing entertainment scene of its own. 

Speaking of downtowns that frequently host events, look no further than the lovely Fox River shores of downtown Aurora. Aurora’s Paramount Theatre is a busy, 1931-vintage gem, and it’s a stone’s throw from Millenium Plaza, both of which are actually on an island in the middle of the river. Add in RiverEdge Park on the eastern bank, and there are three venues that combined provide a summer concert series and countless other renowned musical artists.

Right up the river are Geneva and St. Charles, two charming downtowns with extensive restaurant scenes. Apartments and condos are not as easy to come by there, but recent development projects are changing that. St. Charles recently completed a mix-use development that includes residential units, and more are scheduled to begin construction in the next year. And for those heading north, Highland Park and Libertyville both offer impressive downtowns with plenty of restaurant and shopping choices, and a growing number of residents looking for rental apartments and condos. 

Of course, no discussion of suburban downtowns is complete without mention of Oak Park and Evanston. Oak Park manages to maintain its own “urban village” charm while still being connected to the city in countless ways, including its physical borders. So for those looking for the “urban suburb” experience while minimizing distance from the actual city, this is a tremendous option. The same can be said regarding Evanston’s proximity to the city. Even outside of the warmer months, you still count on downtown Evanston for a healthy dose of youthful vibrancy — thank the thousands of Northwestern undergrads and postgrads for that.  Plenty of options should be available in these two downtowns, as Integra reports that over 1,000 units have been completed in each since 2015 — the most of any Chicagoland suburbs.


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