Brave new block

• Nowhere has the teardown bug bitten any harder than on Downing Road in Riverside, where some 20 percent of the houses may see the wrecking ball.

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By LYDIALYLE GIBSON

A century agoâ€"no, even less than thatâ€"the neighborhood beyond Mary Centorcelli's dining room window was mostly woods and fields: flat, sprawling, silent. Behind her backyard, Henry B. Babson's lavish country estate unfurled across 25 open acres, commanded by a gaggle of outbuildings and a Louis Sullivan-designed mansion.

"We were almost the first house in this neighborhood," said Centorcelli, whose two-story farmhouse on Downing Road in north central Riverside dates back to 1910, just three years after the Babson home went up.

In the decades after that, single-family houses began sprouting in place of trees all along Downing Road, and they shouldered right up to Centorcelli's. Winding streets and driveways tamed the acres of farmland, and when the Babson residence was demolished in 1960, its estate was parceled into lots and developed.

"Our house is now the oldest on the block," Centorcelli said.

And once again, it's witness to a dramatic neighborhood transformation: having consumed whole sections of Hinsdale and Naperville and LaGrange, teardowns have arrived in Riverside. More specifically, they've arrived on Downing Road.

Just one block long and 39 houses strong, Downing Road has recently become a feast for residential developers looking to plow under modest older homes and replace them with sparkling, higher-priced new ones.

Built last year, one such house is already on the market, a voluptuous, turreted Victorian accommodating three fireplaces, four bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths. With an asking price of more than $1 million, the new place is worth twice as much as many other houses on the street, neighbors say.

Meanwhile, a few doors away, developers razed the house on Downing Road's northern edge last month, and a new and bigger building began to take shape there. At least three other houses along Downing are empty and slated for demolitionâ€"one of them has lately found use as a site for police and fire department drillsâ€"and prevailing neighborhood wisdom maintains that as many as four or five more teardowns may be in the works.

"That's the street that's going crazy," said Jack Shay, a developer, contractor and painter who's been building and rehabbing homes in Riverside for close to a decade. It was Shay who put up the new Victorian on Downing Road; his own home is a handsome bungalow not four blocks away. When all is said and done, Shay figures the street may see a total of as many as seven teardowns.

"Teardowns are bringing in lots of developers, and for some of them, this is their first project in Riverside," he said. "In the last two or three years, it's started to really take off here."

That's just what worries Centorcelli. Downing Road is a neighborhood as diverse as they come in a small suburb of mostly white residents, she said. She and her husband and their four young children live across the street from retirees, widows, schoolteachers, a car dealership owner, an anesthesiologist and airline employees.

"Right now, my kids' teachers live in the neighborhood," Centorcelli said. "But if you start building nothing but million-dollar homes, you're going to lose that."

"You'll lose the little bit of diversity there is in this community," chimed her husband, Louis Centorcelli.

Arriving more than four years ago, the Centorcellis were among most recent wave of newcomers to Downing Road. Part of what drew them was the idea of moving to a stable, settled neighborhood with quiet streets and longtime locals and no construction debris. To them, the teardowns bring unwelcome upheaval, and they're not sure they want to stick around if old homes keep crumbling under bulldozers.

"You move somewhere established, and you expect the character to stay the same," Louis Centorcelli said. "It was a nice mix of people. Now it's going to be a very new neighborhood."

Across the street, Art Hazen is thinking the same thing.

"The rest of us are going to be left behind," said Hazen, who moved to Downing Road seven years ago. "Pulling up in front of these new homes in Riverside, all you're seeing are BMWs, Range Rovers, Mercedes. I don't see anybody pulling up in Chevys, Fords, GM cars. It's like, 'OK, there goes the neighborhoodâ€"at least the one I remember.'"

Shay doesn't see it that way. Sure, teardowns stir up a little temporary chaos, he said, but in the end, the advantages to the neighborhood and its residents outweigh any drawbacks.

"Teardowns bring in new blood, new families," he said. "It's great. People say, you know, 'Oh, no, it's not going to be our little town anymore.' But in a lot of these homes that get torn down, the wiring's old, the plumbing's old. These places are not in good shape. And you have to keep building to keep up the quality in the community."

Shay also rejects the notion that swanky new homes pose a threat to existing neighbors. After all, don't rising property values lift all boats? Surely having a pricey home next door is better than having a decrepit one with rickety windows and decaying eaves.

"You have to be sensitive to the neighborhood; you have to try to convince people," Shay said. "I try to help people see the upside. I mean, I'd like to be the last little shack on Downing two years from now. If you've got a $300,000 home, the lot alone will be worth $900,000, because the land is so valuable."

Land values, indeed, are skyrocketing on the street. The house at 385 Downing Road, which fire and police personnel used last week for training, will be demolished shortly to accommodate a new home. The property sold in January for $790,000. The buyer is listed as 385 Downing St. Partners LLC.

Tempering their ambivalence with a dose of resignation, some Downing Road stalwarts are waiting to see what Shay and his colleagues come up with before renouncing or rejoicing over the teardowns.

"It's progress; what are you going to do?" said one neighbor who didn't want to be identified. "I mean, we're not driving around with horses and buggies anymore, either. Progress is change."

"I'm trying to keep an open mind," Hazen said. "I've got mixed emotions. It's not necessarily a good thing, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Change is inevitable, and some houses are due for a teardown. A lot of these homes were built 70 or 100 years ago, and they have asbestos, lead paint, who knows what. It makes sense to tear them down and put up new ones. It keeps the housing stock fresh.

"But on the flip side, look at what they're putting up: homes that don't look like they fit the street, that don't fit the size of the property. You get these giant castle houses, and the open space is disappearing."

The Centorcellis agree. What's more, they're not convinced that every old wreck targeted for teardown deserves to be demolished.

"When we bought this house, it would have been a teardown," Louis Centorcelli said, ticking off a list of repairs that included a new furnace, new plaster, updated wiring and refurbished windows. Nearly every room needed some kind of restoration.

"I mean, it was almost a gut rehab without gutting all the way to the walls. The house hadn't been lived in for five years. It was a mess," he said.

Twenty-nine-year resident William Fallon said he hasn't made up his mind yet about Downing Road's metamorphosis. He confessed some chagrin at seeing Shay's new house rise from the dirt next doorâ€"he even toyed with the idea of selling his own place, he saidâ€"but insisted that for now he's determined to weather the situation.

"People have been here a long time, and being an older guy, I don't like change," Fallon said. "I know that. But this thing next to me really is a great big building. Monetarily, I'm sure this will help us and help the communityâ€"and I'm not against anybody making a buckâ€"but do they have to make the houses so big? The beauty of this street is that it's off the beaten path."

Give it a little time, urged Shay. New homes that seem out of scale now won't look so big in five or 10 or 15 years, when the rest of the neighborhood catches up. Besides, he said, it's not as if Riverside is a village of one-room cabins.

"Some of the houses we have here are pretty monstrous to begin with," Shay said. "I bet I've painted each of those monster big Victorian houses at least once. They're gorgeous."

Still, Shay said he sympathizes with fretting neighbors. Change is stressful. But for Downing Road, he said, it's also inevitable.

"Absolutely it's a love-hate thing," Shay said. "But the bottom line is you go to the neighborsâ€"and I feel for them, I really doâ€"and introduce yourself and talk. I'm an old soul myself. I love that old stuff, the Victorian architecture and the oversized street-paver bricks, the paint job. You can drive by some of my houses and not know if they're old or not."

But whether or not it's convincingly old-fashioned, Shay's Downing Road house is up and completedâ€"and, according to Shay, close to a sale.

Mary Centorcelli said she's bracing now for the half-dozen construction projects yet to come. Keeping her children safe while the builders are at work has become a full-time effort, and she worries about the 15 or so other young children who live on Downing Road. So does Hazen. He's got four youngsters of his own.

"My primary concern is that there are tons of trucks going up and down the street, and kids playing outside," Hazen said. "And the trucks are going quickly ... and I don't think they're looking for kids. "We just have to watch closely," Mary Centorcelli said. "We have to watch everything closely."

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