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Our View: ‘College town’ environment could help downtown DeKalb

At a recent meeting about continuing to grow downtown DeKalb and the surrounding area hosted by Re:New DeKalb last week, the talk was about attracting more people from Northern Illinois University to the area.

There was talk about extending Locust Street to connect to College Avenue, adding consistent shuttle service from campus to downtown, expanding the bike path network and more.

It would be beneficial for DeKalb to create more of a “college town” environment that could entice more students to remain on campus and in town on weekends.

Part of the battle is making it convenient for people to get downtown. But it could also be helpful to shift the redevelopment focus to the area west of downtown, between the NIU lagoon and First Street.

This area, which is part of the same tax-increment financing district as downtown DeKalb, is something of a desert separating downtown from the NIU campus.

There are some existing homes, a few offices and fast-food delivery restaurants in the area, but no real attractions to draw foot traffic in an area that is walkable.

The area does appear to be long on open, available space. Foremost is the languishing 7-acre property that ShoDeen Development had wanted to turn into the NB&T Square.

The project, which was proposed in 2008 and the shelved after the real-estate bubble burst during the Great Recession, could be a logical starting point for changing the look of things west of downtown.

ShoDeen hasn’t gone belly-up. In fact, it has asked for permission to build more than 1,200 houses in a subdivision it is calling “Irongate,” near the DeKalb High School on the north side of the city.

But ShoDeen President Dave Patzelt has said that in order to build something at the Square property, it will need incentives from the city’s tax-increment financing district, a refrain that seems to become more common among developers with each passing month.

The City Council was cool to ShoDeen’s proposal to build more houses earlier this year. If Patzelt brings his plan back to the council on May 28 as expected, the square project should be part of the discussion as well.

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