Thirty years walkin' the Walk

Posted on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 11:30am

By Ron Cohn

Helen Wagner opened her Captain’s Walk real estate office in 1990, still a mall fixture today

Helen WagnerOn a fall afternoon in 1990, Helen Wagner, a sales manager for J.S. James & Company – a large, old-line North Side and suburban real estate development company – was sitting in her small Sheridan Road office when the telephone rang.

Helen had just sold out Tangley Oaks in Lake Bluff, a luxury townhome development by J.S. James, scant steps ahead of the looming recession, and had been pondering her next step. The company wanted her to take over sales in their newest venture, a community in the south suburbs, but it was over an hour’s drive from her Glenview home and promised to be a tough sell.

The caller interrupting her deliberation that afternoon offered an intriguing alternative. It was Herb Rosenthal of Dunbar Builders, the man who built Malibu East nearly 20 years earlier. The high-profile developer had an offer Helen couldn’t refuse. He wanted her to take over management of the Captain’s Walk shopping mall, which he still owned. His proposition included very low rent on a large office in the mall between Malibu and Malibu East. That would afford Helen the opportunity to open her own real estate brokerage, which had been a long-term goal of hers and which had Rosenthal’s endorsement. She says she saw it as the ultimate step in what had been, to that point, a successful and rewarding career.

Helen, born on Chicago’s Near West Side, grew up around Winchester and Jackson, attending Farragut High School. She later moved to 19th and Western, then north to Foster and Damen as a young married, and finally to Glenview, where she raised her one son, Rick. He is a psychiatrist, living in Gurnee, and is father to Helen’s two granddaughters and two step-granddaughters, all of whom are college grads enjoying the single life in the city. “Loving it and wouldn’t think of living anywhere else,” Helen said.

Residential real estate has been Helen’s life work, in which she emerged early as a star condominium salesperson during the boom years that gave birth to Malibu East. Although she never worked in the Dunbar sales office for this building in the early ’70s, she knew all the players through her position on the Sales and Marketing Council of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago – connections that became valuable as her career progressed.

A condo sales star

It was at Winston Towers, the large multi-building community in West Rogers Park, that Helen first distinguished herself in condo sales, gaining national recognition in 1970. The Builders Briefs column in the >Chicago Tribune> on March 7 of that year reported, “Helen Wagner … was recog­nized as the top saleswoman of the year at the National Association of Homebuilders annual convention held recently in Dallas.”

Her six years with the development company Winston-Muss culminated with her being offered the position of sales manager at the new Winston Towers near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The timing was right, so she moved to Florida and spent two years there, a time she remembers fondly.

Winston did things right, with advertising and public relations, and made a big deal of the project and all of us – got us a lot of attention. I had a wonderful experience with them.”

Helen found herself in demand when she came back to Chicago. “Hy Pawlow, the sales manager at Malibu East, had wanted me to come here, and Bill Kaplan, the previous sales manager, had wanted me for a project he was doing in Kansas,” she said. Instead, she landed at United Development, a large firm building numerous suburban communities. She spent five years with them, mostly at The Park of River Oaks, a multi-tower south suburban version of Winston Towers, then went back north to Triumvera, the condo high-rise in Glenview. It was from there that she was finally lured away by Hy Pawlow.

When Hy started his own company, I decided to go with him. It was the start of the condominium conversion time,” she related, “and he wanted me for the conversion of 3950 Lake Shore Drive.” It was a very large project, a complex of three apartment towers, but it was priced attractively and sold fast. The aggressive team moved right on to other conversions, in Downers Grove, then Lombard. “Working with Hy was a lot of fun and we made a lot of money,” Helen recalled. Nevertheless, she opted out for the stability of the half-century-old J.S. James organization, where she could have a sales management position. And that brings us to Herb Rosenthal’s telephone call.

Low point for Captain’s Walk

Helen had seen the shopping mall as a busy, vibrant place in its earlier years, but says that in late 1990, during the recession, it was very different.

Herb had been trying to sell it,” she said. “I was not aware of that at the time, but things were kind of at a low point, so I was not afraid to take it (the management) on.” She felt the mall had nowhere to go but up, and offered great potential for her real estate office.

The building was wonderful and beautifully maintained, Helen says, and she felt that would positively influence business in the mall, including hers.

We had a cleaners, and the beauty shop, the (convenience) store and, of course, Dr. Horbal, who was always here,” she said. “There was a lot of activity here, and I got caught up in it; I went with it.” Helen’s office, which was then twice its present size, had three brokers and “a good, steady business.” But, she said, “the Captain’s Walk never really got back to what it was originally, and over the years it slipped back and got very tired-looking physically.”

Present and future for mall?

Helen was asked her opinion of the now-renamed Malibu East Plaza, both as a real estate expert and a tenant. “It never came back at all from the ‘big bubble’ recession,” she said, “but the Board here has done a wonderful job – did a lot of things necessary to keep the building up to its very high standards and now are doing good things in the mall with the carpeting and painting. It looks a lot better, but there’s just not enough activity. I think the new fitness place (Bezz Training) is bringing in a lot of people of all ages, and that’s positive.”

She also complimented the Malibu Market. “They are very gracious, nice people, and are working very hard with extended hours. Hopefully they will do well there, but we really need more tenants.”

She bemoans the loss of the beauty salon and feels a new one could be key to increasing the foot traffic in the mall, along with a cleaners.

We had a bank, of course, but banking has changed, and I am concerned that with so many people working from home, there’s not going to be as much demand for business services offices,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have kept the dentist here – that’s the third generation now. Dr. (Kerstin) Horbal has adjusted her hours, but she’s there.”

Helen observes that although there is a physician in the Plaza, his time there seems very limited and she thinks more medical services for these buildings would be welcome.

I’m optimistic for the building and for the mall. We’ll just have to see what happens after the virus and the political situation are all settled – what people feel like doing. But I’m not going to worry much about the next 30 years.”