Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Victims of the subdivision

When a subdivision developer goes bust in mid-development, the few families who invested are stranded in an unfinished megabuilding with no lights, no roads and no security. The economic risk inherent in the subdivision system of development is made obvious.

Antioch subdivision like 'ghost town' after developer goes bankrupt
Robert Gabriel and his family moved into an Antioch subdivision months before the developer went bankrupt and left the few residents with little infrastructure.
'Ghost town' subdivision

Robert Gabriel stands at the doorway of an incomplete house near his home in an Antioch subdivision. The Clublands has remained unfinished since builder Neumann Homes declared bankruptcy last month. In addition to half-built houses, streetlights have yet to be installed and the roads aren't paved. "It's been like living in a ghost town since we moved in," Gabriel said. (Tribune photo by David Trotman-Wilkins / December 6, 2007)

By Susan Kuczka | Tribune staff reporter
December 7, 2007

In his old neighborhood in Gurnee, Robert Gabriel was known for elaborate Halloween decorations.

He never imagined he'd end up living in a virtual ghost town.

Gabriel, his wife and children moved into an Antioch subdivision in April, before builder Neumann Homes declared bankruptcy last month. Now, he said, he worries about vandals, thieves and nasty critters creeping around his property, especially at night. Streetlights aren't installed, roads aren't paved and half-built homes stand as stark symbols of the builder's financial woes.

"It's been like living in a ghost town since we moved in," Gabriel, said as he pointed to the skeletal frames of unfinished homes. "It can get scary when it's dark out."

Antioch officials have tried to address some infrastructure improvements to make the Clublands subdivision seem more homey to its residents. For example, the village installed streetlights in some areas, asked police to patrol the subdivision and plowed the roads after this week's snow.

"I feel for them," said Antioch Mayor Dorothy Larson, who along with village trustees agreed to hire a Chicago law firm to help protect the town's interests in the bankruptcy case. "We're trying to take care of certain things we're not legally obligated to do, but the people living there are Antioch residents and we need to do that."

At the time of the Nov. 1 bankruptcy filing, Neumann, the Chicago area's ninth-largest builder, had 15 active developments in the Chicago area, mostly in "exurban" towns such as Antioch, Grayslake and Oswego. It also had planned a transit project in Naperville and a subdivision in Gilberts.

Attorneys for the Warrenville-based company are scheduled to appear Tuesday in federal court in Chicago. In a recent court filing, the developer asked for permission to return deposits to potential residents whose Antioch homes had not reached the construction phase before the bankruptcy filing.

But Gabriel and his handful of neighbors say that since Neumann filed for bankruptcy they've been left to wonder about the future of Clublands. The subdivision was slated to contain 960 single-family homes with prices from around $240,000 to $410,000. An 8,000-square-foot clubhouse also was to be built, along with swimming pools, tennis courts and other amenities.

"We had a ground-breaking for the clubhouse in early May, and then all of a sudden the work just stopped and the workers disappeared," Gabriel said.

The result is that only about a third of Clublands' homes have been completed. Many others have roofs and walls but no doors, windows or driveways, creating a huge void for residents such as Gabriel, who has a vacant home on either side of his residence. Where his back-yard neighbors might one day live is an empty field where children sometimes zoom by on all-terrain vehicles, Gabriel said.

Village Trustee Dennis Crosby, who moved into the first completed portion of the development about four years ago, said he remained optimistic a new developer eventually would take over the project.

"They were working on a huge foundation for a clubhouse and then everything just stopped," he said. "That's the most visible sign of a collapsed dream, but I believe the dream will be resurrected."

With help from Neumann officials, the village set up a "Neumann Homes Info" link on its Web site to help provide answers to a wide range of questions Clublands' residents have voiced since work shut down.

Aside from questions about when a developer might be selected to take over the project and how Neumann's bankruptcy case could affect them personally, Clublands' residents also have concerns about more day-to-day issues. They'd like vacant or half-finished homes to be secured from vandals. They'd like streetlights to be installed throughout the development. They want fully paved streets. They need snowplows to continue arriving during wintry weather.

Larson said the village and Neumann have tried to fill the gap created by the work shutdown, but Gabriel said there are certain issues that aren't likely to be rectified until the empty houses are filled with residents.

With the windows of the homes next to his covered only by tarps that can be heard flapping when wind whips through, Gabriel said, coyotes, raccoons and other critters seem to have taken up residence.

"We can hear owls hooting at night from one of the vacant houses next to us," he said. "We could put up 'No Trespassing' signs, but I don't think it would help."

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