SUDDENLY, IT SEEMS, URBAN RENEWAL is everywhere. Not the kind of mindless urban construction that took hold back in the 1960s, when whole neighborhoods were razed in favor of bland, boring apartments. This century's downtown dynamic is much savvier, with builders and developers working hard—and smart—to put up structures that make sense with their surroundings.

In Chicago, that translates into The Mansions at Prairie Avenue, a block-long stretch of $1 million-plus beauties that take their inspiration from the Gilded Age. In San Diego's Little Italy, an infill project called doma serves as a lesson in neighborhood-sensitive design. And in an up-and-coming section of downtown Washington, a local architect-turned-developer shows that contemporary row houses can look right at home in the midst of modest Victorians.

History In The Making In Chicago, The Mansions on Prairie Avenue pick up where the Gilded Age left off. AT FIRST GLANCE, IT'S hard to tell whether the 17 row homes lined up along one side of Prairie Avenue are vestiges of this street's famous past or harbingers of the future. The granite curbs, antique streetlamps, and nearby iron-fenced park hint at this neighborhood's Gilded Age aura, when 1890s Chicago heavyweights such as George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Potter Palmer lived on what was then known as “Millionaires Row.” In later years, this architecturally rich South Loop district fell on hard times as prominent families abandoned their mansions and moved north. But Chicago-based developer Rezmar Corp. is counting on a rebound—and in a big way.

The five-story Mansions on Prairie Avenue might look historic, but they are indeed brand new. They make up the third and final phase of Rezmar's five-year development, Historic Homes on Prairie Avenue.

(Phases I and II include 18 town-homes at The Cornerstone of the Commonwealth, and The Commonwealth on Prairie Avenue, a 41-unit condominium and townhome development.) The family-friendly mansions, designed by Chicago architectural firm Pappageorge/Haymes, offer private parking, three to four bedrooms, up to six baths, 4,800 to 5,900 square feet of living area, and top-floor views of Lake Michigan and Soldier Field. All but the model have been sold, at prices ranging from $1.5 to $2 million. “The Mansions were executed better than anyone expected,” says Ron Smith, vice president of sales and advertising at Rezmar. “I was standing outside one day and someone passing by asked how old the original house was that we were ‘remodeling.' I said to her, ‘How does six months grab you?' That's a testimony to Pappageorge/Haymes and our own Chicago Construction Services.”

While the front elevations give off a sense of history (classic stone stoops, brick and brownstone façades, gabled roofs), the inside is all about life in the 21st century. Each home features the rooms that today's families demand—library/den, family room, open kitchen, media room—plus its own elevator, 9- to 11-foot ceilings, cove moldings, top-notch built-ins, and liberal use of granite and marble. Credit for the high level of interior appointments goes to prominent Chicago designer John Robert Wiltgen, who was hired by Rezmar to offer up to 150 hours of his time to provide design guidance to each new homeowner.

“There was no way of forecasting what upgrades our buyers would want,” says Smith. “John's normal fee is $200 per hour, so it ended up being $30,000 worth of design. John's work is so precise, though, that we were able to build directly from his drawings, so it became a practical way to give homeowners some choice.”

It also ended up being a great marketing tool and a nifty way to turn million-dollar spec houses into near custom creations. Arthur Meeker, the 19th-century writer who called Prairie Avenue “that sunny street that holds the sifted few,” would no doubt approve.

Project: The Mansions on Prairie Avenue, Chicago; Size: 4,800 to 5,900 square feet; Total units: 17; Price: $1.5 to $2 million; Developer: Mansions of Prairie Place LLC, managed by Rezmar Corp., Chicago; Builder: Chicago Construction Services, Chicago; Architect: Pappageorge/Haymes, Chicago; Landscape architect: Hayden Bulin Larson, Chicago; Interior designer: John Robert Wiltgen Design, Chicago

Smooth Blend In San Diego's Little Italy, an infill project fits right into a vibrant downtown scene.

AN ACCURATE DESCRIPTION of doma, a residential building that takes up an entire city block in San Diego's Little Italy, very much depends on your perspective. Stand on Fir Street, and you'll see an ultracool, eight-story concrete loft structure marked by expanses of glass, wide-open balconies, and hip touches of color. Go around the corner to Kettner Boulevard and Date Street, and you're presented with a series of traditional, wood-framed, softly colored brownstones—called “towns” by the developer—anchored by a Deco-flavored clock tower. Perceptions were important to City Mark Development, which specializes in urban San Diego projects. “We decided that it was important to the community of San Diego that this building not read as a full block, but [rather] look like a few different buildings,” says CityMark vice president Russ Haley. “You can do that in a couple of different ways. Some projects do it with façade treatments and paint colors, things that are more Disneylandish in nature. We decided to architecturally break up the buildings using different construction techniques and different styles.”

Massing plays a key role when you're trying to put up a building that doesn't look, well, massive. Martinez + Cutri, the San Diego architectural firm hired by CityMark to come up with a plan for doma's 122 units, took a number of steps to mitigate density and make connections with the street. Both the loft and towns buildings employ stepped-back designs that allow for larger balconies; 44 of the 55 towns and most of the lofts are two stories with high-volume ceilings and some mezzanine levels; the walk-up towns (which include live/work “shopkeeper's” units) provide a connection to Little Italy's colorful street scene.

“One of the unique things about this project is that we have walk-ups on both the towns as well as the lofts, which creates a direct access to the street,” says Haley. “That interaction with the street is an important part of this project and all of our projects.”

Project: doma, San Diego; Size: 740 to 1,900 square feet; Total units: 122; Price: $243,900 to $700,900; Developer/Builder: CityMark Development, San Diego; Architect: Martinez + Cutri, San Diego; Landscape architect: Deneen Powell Atelier, San Diego; Interior designer: Divan Studios, San Diego

Trendy Transition Five contemporary designs look right at home in an up-and-coming Washington neighborhood.

THE 2100 BLOCK OF 10TH Street N.W., in Washington's Shaw community, is a study in urban transition: On one corner, framers are busily putting up the skeleton of a new multifamily dwelling; on the opposite corner, a former bodega looks as if it has been boarded up for at least a decade; and in the middle of the block, wedged between a typical run of Victorian-era brick row homes, are five very contemporary, 16-foot-wide masonry-and-stucco attached homes.

“Within six months of starting this project, everything changed,” says Ali R. Honarkar, an architect with diVISION ONE architects in Rockville, Md. Honarkar and his partner, Mustafa Ali Nouri, not only designed the five contiguous homes, they also acted as the developer. The neighborhood's swift transition—from down-and-out to up-and-coming—is reflected in the huge price fluctuation of the units, which average about 2,200 square feet. The first unit sold for $404,000 in 2002; less than two years later, the last unit went for $850,000.

“I'd always wanted to bring an alternative type of housing to downtown Washington, and I talked to a lot of developers, but nobody wanted to come on board,” says Honarkar. “We finally found a bank in the area that shared our vision, so we decided to go ahead with the project on our own.”

Honarkar and his partner admit to pushing the design envelope—at least for buttoned-up Washington—most notably with their use of materials. Outside, there are pastel colors and touches of steel; inside, there are custom concrete countertops and high-end Italian lighting. “We wanted to prove that different styles can work together, but people said we were crazy,” says Honarkar. “But I think good design is good design, whether it's in Georgetown or this area of D.C. We didn't know how this neighborhood was going to react to it, but people ended up loving it.”

They have even forgiven the developers for naming the project Logan Heights Development (it's really in neighboring Shaw). “Shaw Development just wasn't working,” says Honarkar. “I felt bad that we couldn't use the name for the project, so when our first son was born, we named him Shaw.”

Project: Logan Heights Development, Washington; Size: 2,100 to 2,300 square feet; Total units: 5; Price: $404,000 to $850,000; Developer: Development Studios, Washington; Builder: Gordon Construction, Washington; Architect/Landscape architect/Interior designer: diVISION ONE architects, Rockville, Md.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA, Washington, DC, Chicago, IL.