DeKALB – Tom Smith says Northern Illinois University can expect nearby residents to push back against some of the bold ideas proposed in the last few months.
Smith, who lives in DeKalb’s historic Ellwood neighborhood, has experience making his voice heard. He successfully petitioned against a plan to build a hotel on John Street, and he’s ready to petition against the university if need be.
“They ought to really rethink what they’re proposing to do in our neighborhood,” Smith said.
Under new President Doug Baker, NIU officials are looking to make changes to the campus’ layout and transportation plan, and also have hosted a couple of six-day “Bold Futures” workshops to generate ideas to improve the student experience, attract more students and improve student retention.
Some of those ideas will be discussed today in what the university is calling the “Big Bold Event” at 5 p.m. in the Holmes Student Center’s Duke Ellington Ballroom, 340 Carroll Ave., DeKalb.
Most of those ideas have not been acted upon yet, but the idea to make Lucinda Avenue the center or spine of campus is already in the works as university trustees approved a plan to demolish Douglas Hall dormitory this May.
Other ideas for change include a plan to rehabilitate some buildings on John Street and Harrison Avenue make them more attractive to young professionals and retirees. College Avenue, which runs through the heart of the Ellwood neighborhood, has been floated as the main connection between campus and downtown DeKalb, with a tram service to help students get there. NIU officials also want to create internship and learning opportunities for students to serve those living in the Hillcrest neighborhood.
Residents in DeKalb’s historic Ellwood and Hillcrest neighborhoods are concerned that the university came up with these ideas without consulting them first.
The Ellwood neighborhood is home to some of most unique and beautiful older homes in the city. Its winding roads, some of them paved with brick, are shaded by a canopy of mature trees. Some of the houses have a long history of use as multi-tenant or multi-family buildings; some are vacant because people in the area tend to move frequently.
The Ellwood House, 509 N. First St. in DeKalb, is included in the National Register of Historic Places listings in DeKalb County.
But not all of the old homes in the neighborhood are so stately. DeKalb City Council members last year decided against a plan to buy and renovate multi-family homes in the neighborhood to convert them to single-family homes because it would be a money-losing proposition, and some aldermen questioned how much useful life some of the buildings still had.
A group of people who live or own property in the neighborhoods around campus have formed the citizens group Preserve our Neighborhoods. They plan to meet next at 7 p.m. Sunday at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 615 N. First St. in DeKalb.
DeKalb Mayor John Rey has accepted an invitation to attend, and Bill Nicklas, NIU’s vice president of public safety and community relations, will also attend. Residents can ask questions and make comments about proposed changes to the NIU campus and collar neighborhoods.
NIU spokesman Paul Palian said the university is aware of the residents’ concerns, and NIU’s next step is to use the feedback they’ve received from public displays.
Palian said the design ideas that NIU has presented are only conceptual at this point.
“They are being altered and adapted through collaboration and dialogue with the community,” Palian said.
Sally DeFauw, chair of DeKalb’s landmark commission and county board member, lives in the historic district. She said she is concerned with how fast the university is acting on its ideas.
“Part of me is puzzled as to why the landmark commission hasn’t been consulted about this,” she said.
DeFauw said NIU is planning a beta run of a tram service this summer through the neighborhood. DeFauw lives a short walk from College Street, and said the number of cars parked along the curb could make it difficult for a tram to squeeze by.
Rey says he isn’t opposed to the tram idea, because it could bring students to downtown events such as the city’s farmers market.
“It’s lightweight. It can run on sidewalks,” Rey said. “It’s purposely intended to run on lesser than street pavement. Until I see more specifics, I’m not opposed to the idea. It’s worth exploring.”
Michael Haji-Sheikh and his wife, DeKalb County board member Misty Haji-Sheikh, also are speaking out about the plans. Michael Haji-Sheikh said the university should have asked residents for their opinions before listing the ideas publicly.
Misty Haji-Sheikh said it’s important to speak up about the ideas now before they get etched in stone. She said the historic district could become one of the city’s best neighborhoods.
“Why not make it our crown jewel?” she said. “Being in the planning stage is where you need to be. The chances of having this as a crown jewel is going to go away.”