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Downtown DeKalb focuses redevelopment plan on interacting with NIU

DeKALB – When Denise Weinmann and members of Re:New DeKalb asked potential civil planning firms what came to mind when they thought about DeKalb they all gave the same answer: Northern Illinois University.

That answer laid the path for a series of improvements to downtown DeKalb that revolve around engaging and connecting NIU in a larger way. SAA Design Group, a Wisconsin-based civil planning firm, has proposed 10 recommendations for downtown DeKalb including a consistent shuttle from campus to downtown, an expanded bike path network and establishing a “Communiversity Commons” near the intersection of Lincoln Highway and First Street.

Weinmann, a commercial real estate agent with Milner & Associates, said tapping into the potential of NIU would be crucial to downtown DeKalb’s future success.

“We need to have a rich, blended selection of office space, retail, restaurants, housing and entertainment,” she said. “You need to attract a daytime and nighttime population to have success.”

Ryan Garcia, senior planner for SAA Design Group, said major changes could be part of the plan.

One option to connect the university to the downtown area is through a restructuring of Locust Street.

Garcia said the recommendation is to construct a West Locust Street connection from First Street to College Avenue.

Another major addition could be a “Library Square,” which would serve as open space for public events such as Corn Fest performances. The green space would be located south of the proposed DeKalb Public Library expansion, Garcia said.

“We’re looking at this from the 30,000-foot level when it comes to details,” Garcia said. “I don’t think there is any silver bullet, but when you put it all together it addresses a lot of the issues.”

Other suggestions included implementing year-round programming at the Egyptian Theatre, adding traffic generators, such as a children’s museum or bowling alley, and improving the streetscape along Lincoln Highway.

Bill Nicklas, vice president for public safety and community relations at NIU, said he was impressed with many of the ideas proposed and believed the university should play a large part in the future of the downtown.

He said he would like to see NIU expand on the Center for Governmental Studies and art gallery already located in the area. Adding courses and events in downtown buildings and areas is the best way to introduce students to the strengths that already exist, he said.

“The bottom line here is both NIU and the city are interested in engaging students in particular,” Nicklas said. “This is a ready-made market so what can we do to make downtown more appealing?”

Funding for the proposed projects has not been determined, but Nicklas said it would likely require a public-private partnership. A project management team of city staff, NIU officials and downtown representatives could be created to submit a formal plan for city council approval.

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