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RISMEDIA, May 23, 2007-(MCT)-The Irish are coming. Actually, the Irish are here — Irish investors who apparently have U.S. real estate on their minds and plenty of money to spend on it. Now some in the real estate community are banking on more of them taking a shine to Chicago.

“The wealth coming out of Ireland is mind-boggling,” said Chicago real estate broker Sean Conlon, who was born in County Kildare. “And the Irish love to own real estate. It’s pretty much the national sport.”

Having established beachheads on the East Coast, Irish investors have turned their attention here, as evidenced most dramatically by Dublin developer Garrett Kelleher’s plan to erect the Chicago Spire, a 150-story lakefront condominium tower.

Kelleher is hardly the first to eye trophy real estate here, however. Anglo Irish Bank Corp. this year financed the $93 million purchase of 625 N. Michigan Ave. by a syndicate of Irish investors. An Irish builder is putting up a 35-story condo building in the South Loop. Irish realty brokerages are partnering with U.S. developers to market high-rise condos while they’re still on the drawing boards.

So far, most buyers are of the institutional stripe, typically buying blocks of condos or prominent commercial sites. But individuals, empowered by the thriving Irish economy, are starting to get noticed in the marketplace, some brokers say.

“They’re certainly out there,” said Catherine Steigmann, a broker for @Properties in Chicago who visited Dublin and Limerick last year to promote Lexington Park, a condo development that the Limerick-based Chieftain Group is putting up on the site of Al Capone’s old hangout, the Lexington Hotel.

Steigmann said Irish investors have bought about 70 of the building’s 333 units, with varying intentions.

“Some are going to use it as a second home; some are planning to send children to school here; some see it just as an investment opportunity for a few years. They’ll rent it out and see how it goes,” she said.

Castleroc Estates, a brokerage in Dublin, recently brought in buyers from Ireland who bought more than 20 units at Lincoln Park 2520, where the $850- to $1,300-a-square-foot prices put it in the top tier of new construction in Chicago.

John Murphy, principal of Ricker-Murphy Development, which is developing the building, initially presumed that the Castleroc clients were strictly investors.

“We did get some investors buying from the group, but we also had people buying much larger units for their own personal use — second and third homes,” Murphy said.

Dublin resident Gerry Danaher bought one of them, plus a unit at Century Tower in the Loop. Danaher, who once lived in Chicago, said he’s toying with the idea of using one of the condos as a second home.

Apart from his affection for Chicago, he said he’s buying here because Ireland’s residential real estate market is slowing after a phenomenal run.

“There’s not a lot left to go, in terms of capital appreciation,” Danaher said. “Irish people are looking abroad. Interest in Chicago is a continued evolution for the investor looking overseas.”

Real estate in general took off in Ireland about a decade ago after generous tax policies enticed major international corporations to set up shop there. Employment soared. Home sales boiled over.

“The Irish bought property with a vengeance,” Conlon said. “Since the early 1990s, residential appreciation of 10 to 20% a year was pretty common, and more.

“Anyone who owned land 10 years ago got rich. People who bought 1/8farmland3/8 for $50,000 were selling it for $5 million.”

Though the residential boom seems to be tapering off — house prices in Ireland were flat in February for the first time in four years — interest in commercial investment is thriving.

The nation of 4.3 million residents has $13.5 billion of commercial investment money looking for a home, according to a report by Clare Eriksson, a researcher for Jones Lang LaSalle in Dublin, who says investors have run out of places to buy locally.

Though they invested about $133 million in their own commercial market in just the first quarter of this year, the big money went abroad: Between January and March, Irish investors spent about $2.4 billion overseas, with the majority going to Britain and Germany, Jones Lang LaSalle said. Only 2.5% of the foreign property investment went into U.S. projects, by company estimates.

Conlon, who founded Chicago’s Sussex & Reilly real estate brokerage, figures the timing is right for the Irish to begin directing more money here.

The softening U.S. home market represents an automatic exchange-rate incentive, with the euro recently hitting a two-year high against the dollar, he said.

He has launched a new joint venture with a Dublin-based property development company that will provide private-equity funding for real estate investment in America, particularly in Chicago, Conlon said. He is working on deals to sell 100 condos in two Chicago projects to Irish investors.

Conlon said it’s Chicago’s turn.

“Irish property investment happened in Florida first because historically the Irish vacationed there,” he said. “Then it spread to places where there are big Irish populations, like Boston. New York is a particularly sexy investment, along with Barbados, because there’s a big Irish population that winters down there.

“Chicago is kind of a Johnny-come-lately, but the Irish are realizing it’s an international city,” said Conlon, who maintains a home in Ireland. “The minute anybody visits here, they go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.