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Conversations ‘reset’ on Ellwood neighborhood redevelopment

DeKALB – When Ellwood Historic Neighborhood resident Kurt Thurmaier saw Northern Illinois University’s bold ideas, he didn’t think the institution was plotting to expand east.

“Unlike some of my neighbors, I definitely did not see a plan,” said Thurmaier, who is also a professor and chairman of the public administration department at NIU. “And I didn’t think the university was trying to take over my neighborhood.”

While some residents of the Ellwood Historic District have raised sharp criticisms of ideas floated by NIU, the city and some private investors, others wondered when productive talks between officials and the neighbors would start. Now months later, some neighbors, city and NIU leaders are trying to restart conversations about the future of the neighborhood.

Officials said they’re waiting on a couple of things to happen before talks about potential redevelopment resume.

On the city side, Mayor John Rey said development will have to be driven by a private entity, with city officials and residents contributing to the conversation. The city’s strategic plan, as well as its plan for dealing with the expiration of the tax increment finance district encompassing the Ellwood Historic District, also will be key, Rey said.

“It will be very important to engage the diverse viewpoints of that neighborhood,” Rey said.

Meanwhile, Bill Nicklas, NIU’s vice president of operations and community relations, said the university’s part in shaping the area, including Harrison and John Streets, will depend on what the community wants.

The neighborhood

The Ellwood Historic District, an area bordered by Lincoln Highway, the Kishwaukee River, Augusta Avenue and First Street,
contains stately and historic homes. The neighborhood, particularly the John and Harrison streets area, also has some single family homes that have been converted into multifamily rooming houses, some of which city leaders and neighbors agree are in disrepair.

DeKalb resident and District 7 DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh leads the group, Preserve Our Neighborhood, responsible for most of the outcry against NIU and the city earlier this year. She said she doesn’t want to see change in what buildings fill the neighborhood, although she’s not opposed to changing how some of them look.

“I will admit there are some houses on John Street that need some work,” Haji-Sheikh said. “But it’s not that it needs to be redeveloped.”

Last year, the city abandoned plans to purchase multifamily homes in the area to convert them into single family homes because of the cost. Instead, the city approved the City Center Plan, which labels the area “Communiversity Commons” and calls for redevelopment in the area.

Rey said he hasn’t seen any solid proposals from private developers, although he sees the area as ideal for buildings that contain both residential and commercial space. Once solid plans emerge, the City Center Project Management Team will meet to discuss the plans.

“The complexion, the design might change,” Rey said. “But it will need to be compatible with the neighborhood. It won’t be bulldozing and putting up some modern edifice.”

Redevelopment considerations

David Castro sees the neighborhood where he’s lived for eight years as the gateway between the university and downtown DeKalb. Castro, who also sits on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, thinks the neighborhood could be a destination for residents and visitors, but isn’t.

He was excited to see the neighborhood included in NIU’s Bold Ideas Thesis, knowing if any of the ideas came to fruition, it would take time.

“In the long term, in the grand scheme of things, I want to see change,” Castro said. “I want to know how I can be a positive part of that change.”

The city, NIU, a sister company of Castle Bank, along with First State Bank and local builder Steve Irving, had contemplated a public-private partnership called “College Town Partners” that would buy properties from the west side of Harrison Street to the Kishwaukee River in order to redevelop the area. The partnership never materialized. Some have pointed to the talks among the principals as evidence that the public’s input was not wanted.

Beyond the planning and discussions, there remains some limitations to what can be built in the area because of flooding.

NIU’s main contribution would be dredging it’s East Lagoon to reduce the size of the floodplain in the area, which encompasses the west side of John Street and part of the east side. University officials haven’t researched how much dredging would cost or how long it would take.

“The question will be, is that what the community, the neighborhood, the city feels is worthwhile,” Nicklas said.

Meanwhile, Thurmaier said the city needs to establish an ordinance to recognize legitimate neighborhood organizations, such as the Ellwood Historic Neighborhood Association, so those groups can be part of meaningful conversations.

“The more voices at the round table,” Thurmaier said, “the greater legitimacy of the discussion.”

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