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Opinion

Olson: No senior apartments – so what now?

A sign stands in the vacant 4.6-acre lot at 1101 Hathaway Drive in Sycamore near the Farm and Fleet, where a three-story, 54-unit low-income senior housing project was proposed.
A sign stands in the vacant 4.6-acre lot at 1101 Hathaway Drive in Sycamore near the Farm and Fleet, where a three-story, 54-unit low-income senior housing project was proposed.

People applauded after the Sycamore City Council unanimously voted down a plan to build senior apartments this week, with Mayor Curt Lang saying that “the public has spoken.”

It was democracy in action. People living nearby made it clear they did not want a three-floor, 54-unit apartment building built on a vacant 4.6-acre lot at 1101 Hathaway Drive near the Farm and Fleet.

What exactly do they want there? Nothing, would be my guess. That’s what’s been there for years, and that’s what people are used to.

Turning down this apartment plan might have been popular, but it might not have been the best thing for the city, its schools or senior citizens.

The developer was going to make a substantial investment in the city that would have increased property value without adding any children to local schools.

Nearby residents were frank that they didn’t want that kind of development in their neighborhood, citing their concern it wouldn’t be maintained, it didn’t match the character of the area, and so on.

I drive past that vacant lot all the time. The only thing it contributes to the neighborhood is a screened view of the back side of the Farm and Fleet building.

People at the September Planning Commission meeting groaned and began to leave when they heard the apartments would be mostly for low-income seniors.

Of course, a lot of seniors have low incomes. My 91-year-old grandmother hasn’t worked since the 1980s. She lives independently, and Social Security benefits aren’t putting her into a lofty tax bracket. I’ll bet there are plenty of grandmothers like her in the area who go to church on Sundays, make you way too much food when you visit, and who would love to find a place designed for them.

The property where the apartments were proposed is a short walk to a 24-hour drugstore.

There’s already lots of light from the parking lots of retail establishments, and there’s already multitenant use in the form of a hotel right across the street.

It seems like a reasonable spot for senior living. But the property required rezoning, and there was no compelling reason for Sycamore’s City Council to make an unpopular decision.

The site is zoned for mixed-use residential and commercial development. That would allow for townhomes and commercial buildings, or apartments over commercial buildings, but not simply apartments or townhomes.

There’s probably sound theory behind the zoning designation on the property, but the market hasn’t delivered any proposals to fit that zoning over the years.

City officials have rejected other plans for the property that didn’t fit the zoning, most recently in 2004, when planning commissioners decided that they had to preserve commercial property. It’s been preserved, all right. It probably looks just as it did then.

The city and its schools – and by extension, taxpayers – would benefit from having some kind of development there because it would increase the property value, in turn increasing the total property tax. When the tax burden is spread around, we all pay less thanks to the property tax cap law.

If the development is senior housing that doesn’t add any children to the public schools, it’s pure profit for Sycamore School District 427, which is the largest part of Sycamore homeowners’ tax bills. Those bills are pretty high, aren’t they?

Maybe the exposure that plot of land received in recent months will lead to a proposal that will fit the zoning, or at least come close enough.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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