Some of the glories of calling Waukegan your home are obvious: A location along the shore of blue Lake Michigan, within easy commuting range of downtown Chicago and at a fraction of the price you would pay compared to most of Chicago’s “North Shore” suburbs. A settled, long-established town that allows homebuyers and renters to choose from homes in a wide variety of styles, ages and price points. A diverse population mirroring the rainbow of people who make up America.
Less commonly known is how Lake County’s county seat and biggest city has become a center of the fine arts, a magnet for big-name entertainment and a center for boating and summer fun.
James D. Smith, a Realtor with RE/MAX Showcase, grew up in Lake County and currently works in the Waukegan area. Smith said this convergence of positives has led to an explosion of demand for Waukegan homes, greater than any he has seen in his 28 years in the business.
“Housing is definitely more affordable in Waukegan than other northern suburbs,” Smith said. “Property values have increased about 50 percent in a year and now there is more demand for homes in Waukegan than there are properties on the market. A lot of times people will put their home on the market and end up with multiple offers.”
Chicago is just an hour south of Waukegan on Metra Rail’s Union Pacific North Line. Along the way riders can make stops at Ravinia music park, Naval Station Great Lakes and Northwestern University.
The Pace commuter bus service provides rides within Waukegan. Interstate 94 and other highways connect Waukegan, not only with the Windy City, but with Milwaukee and Kenosha, Wisconsin, which are just a short drive to the north. Highways also take commuters to the numerous corporate headquarters and office parks that are located in other Lake and northern Cook County suburbs.
“I work with a lot of people who either grew up in Waukegan or went to school there, and with all the improvements that are being made, they want to stay in the city,” Smith said.
Along the city’s harbor, a festival area called Harbor’s Edge will be expanded to include Siver Park across the street, plus a new stage, temporary retail space and a three-season pavilion. In summer 2017 that area hosted five music and food festivals, featuring more than 40 local, regional and international musical and cultural acts, spanning country, blues and Latino genres.
A monthly project with the punning name “ArtWauk” also has helped turn downtown Waukegan into a beehive of activity for visual artists.
Also downtown is the almost-century-old Genesee Theatre that has been taken over by the city and totally renovated. It now draws people from all over the region to see shows by a who’s-who of A-list musicians and comedians each week. Meanwhile, the local Three Brothers Theatre stages live community theater.
Smith said this spirit of rehab has extended into the residential neighborhoods too, as the many homes left over from the 19th- and early 20th century attract people who yearn to live in a “painted lady” or some other Victorian or Georgian abode.
“I actually sold a home on Julian Street that Abraham Lincoln had slept in,” Smith said.
Rehabbed or not, Waukegan offers the homebuyer a wide variety of choices, from classic Victorian to mid-century ranch, from vintage farmhouse to mail-order bungalow.