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Our View: Partnership needed for progress

The neighborhood around Harrison and John streets in DeKalb is an area in distress right on the doorstep of Northern Illinois University.

It is an area with multiple properties in foreclosure, including several by First State Bank of DeKalb.

It is served by aging infrastructure, with some of the city’s oldest water mains and a tangle of overhead power lines. The houses are older, and are almost exclusively rentals, some advertising as many as nine rooms for rent.

Much of it also is in a flood plain, which in addition to causing problems with storm water, also limits new building there as well as what owners can get for their properties on the open market.

It also is an area with tremendous potential. The Kishwaukee River and NIU lagoon, now almost completely invisible from the street, are wonderful natural features. Adding mixed-use development along a public river walk, for example, could make the area a community destination, and enhance the connectivity between the NIU campus and downtown DeKalb, a stated goal both of NIU President Doug Baker and DeKalb Mayor John Rey.

Plans for a public-private partnership as outlined in documents that surfaced this week probably are not the way to do it. But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the project is not worth pursuing. In fact, if anything is to happen in the area, NIU and DeKalb both will have to help.

NIU’s east lagoon, just across the river, would have to be dredged about 3 feet in order to move more of the area out of the flood plain. That’s an expensive project, but also a critical one.

The city cannot invest directly in a redevelopment project because if it did, it would not be able to contribute any tax increment financing funds, Rey said. The area in question is already part of a TIF district with several years of life remaining, which could enable the city to contribute by making loans or repairing infrastructure.

A reliable developer with an acceptable vision for remaking the area in a way that can boost the tax base and keep with the character of the community also is needed. Local banks will have to believe it can happen and be willing to make loans.

The residents group Preserve Our Neighborhoods, led by DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh, helped get the conversation started after announcing it had received copies of the partnership plan.

The group said it wants to be part of the process, and they should have ample opportunity to comment upon any plan – but first something has to be publicly proposed.

In casting the abandoned partnership plan as a shadowy conspiracy, however, it misses the point. Attempts to spur investment to beautify and redevelop the area, as well as eliminate flooding issues, should be seen as a positive for all.

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