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NIU officials reach out to residents at meeting about university’s plans

DeKALB – One of the goals of Northern Illinois University President Douglas Baker has been to inspire more collaboration between the city and school, Baker told the audience at a town hall meeting Saturday.

“I think what we can do here is take the city’s planning that’s been underway for a couple of years and start building,” Baker said. “And so that was the idea: Let’s take on this design thesis and see how can the university begin to talk and plan with the city and see how those pieces come together. Could we really have this town-gown relationship and make a vibrant community where we’re both progressing together?”

Some of the plans floated by NIU officials, though, have raised the hackles of residents living nearby, particularly in the Ellwood historic neighborhood to the east. At the town hall meeting hosted by DeKalb Mayor John Rey, concerned residents and Northern Illinois University officials dug into more details about the proposed changes.

Rey was “very pleased” with the tenor of the dialogue in the city council chambers.

“I think the discussion today moved in a very positive vein,” Rey said. “… I think people were able to see Doug Baker’s personality – the mindset he’s bringing to the community-university relationship. I hope people were able to see my perspective on that relationship and the energy I’m putting into [it].”

The meeting was a followup to one hosted last week by Preserve Our Neighborhoods, a community group formed by residents living around NIU who are concerned about changes the university has proposed that could affect their neighborhoods.

NIU consultant Ron Walters, an architect and former head of consulting for Deloitte, said in order to reverse declining enrollment, the university must do a better job attracting members of the millenial generation. Today’s traditional students are savvy shoppers who prefer living in an urban rather than suburban environment. Walters cited the fact that one-third of last school year’s freshman class did not return as sophomores this school year.

One of NIU’s goals is to help make DeKalb a “cool” university town, but many residents are concerned about how some of the Ideas for achieving that would affect their neighborhoods.

Steve Duchrow, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood, said the university has to overcome long-standing community suspicion toward NIU leadership.

“NIU has come to DeKalb when it’s needed things from it,” Duchrow said.

Bill Nicklas, NIU ’s vice president of public safety and community relations, acknowledged that there was truth in that. But he also pointed out that Baker had appeared at community meetings twice in less than a week, which he said might be twice as many times as any former NIU president in the past 43 years.

NIU officials repeatedly emphasized that at this stage, the plans are just ideas, most of which will not be implemented.

Tom Smith, who owns the DeKalb Confectionary, began the question and answer portion of the meeting by questioning the viability of the proposed John and Harrison Street retail area. He warned that “to pursue a retail course in our historic district will be a political disaster.”

The four main issues of concern for residents were proposals for straightening Locust Street and making it a hub to connect campus to downtown, creating a proposed eastern portal to campus through the nearby Ellwood historic neighborhood, the small shuttle buses, or “puppies,” that NIU is considering using as a way to move students from campus to the downtown business area, and flood control measures to improve the John Street area.

Residents at the meeting questioned how the proposed improvements would be funded. Rey said the city recently applied for a federal grant, which they didn’t receive and that federal earmarks aren’t there anymore.

Glenn Roby, a Greek Row area landlord, was concerned about the impact moving Greek housing to Lucinda would have on the current neighborhood and also questioned plans for affordable housing for professors near campus, citing University Village as a previous failed effort at that.

“The questions that were asked were very good. People need to be asking those questions,” said Elaine Cozort, a DeKalb resident who participated in the Bold Futures Workshops at NIU. “I appreciate the opportunities to do this kind of thing, to give input to the leaders.”

Cozort lives in one of the NIU collar neighborhoods and said she is always watching for things that might affect her home.

“I think flood control measures to help save John Street is a lot different than what they were talking about a long time ago. The rumor was about tearing everything down and putting in a hotel,” said Cozort. “There are a lot of rumors that fly around that are not really accurate.”

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