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NIU neighbors question plans for redevelopment partnership

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University considered joining the city of DeKalb, two local banks and a developer to redevelop properties around John and Harrison streets, but university officials since have backed away from the idea.

NIU and the city had considered a public-private partnership with First State Bank, a sister company of Castle Bank, and Steve Irving of Irving Construction to purchase properties, improve infrastructure and mitigate flooding from the west side of Harrison Street to the Kishwaukee River.

However, the university is no longer pursuing the partnership, Bill Nicklas, NIU's vice president of public safety and community relations, said Tuesday. Nicklas described plans for redevelopment in the area as "moving sideways."

“It does not represent how redevelopment would occur,” Nicklas said. “It doesn't represent where we'd like to go.”

Part of the area, including the west side of John Street and part of the east side, is in a flood plain, which restricts what can be built there, Nicklas said. NIU's main contribution to redevelopment would be to dredge the East Lagoon on campus, which would shrink the size of the flood plain.

Dredging would cost well beyond the university's proposed $250,000 contribution to the partnership, and the university did not need to be part of the partnership to complete it, Nicklas said.

“Right now, I don't know if we need an overarching umbrella,” Nicklas said.

The memo and proposed partnership have caused some consternation with Preserve Our Neighborhoods, a DeKalb group headed by Ward 7 DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh that is concerned with ideas NIU is floating.

Haji-Sheikh said the group received the documents anonymously and plans to hold a press conference today to address them.

“While I don't know the intent based on what I see in the documents, I think the fact they exist is worrying,” Haji-Sheikh said.

The partnership

An intense planning session the university held in late October spawned the partnership idea. The session included Jim Heid, a planner who was involved in redeveloping the area around Ohio State University. During the meeting, Heid suggested putting together the shell for a public-private partnership aimed at redevelopment.

In December, “College Town Partners” was incorporated because the partners wanted to secure the name, Nicklas said.

Heid returned to NIU in January as part of the team that created the Bold Ideas Thesis, a document detailing potential changes for the NIU campus. At that point, the potential partners discussed the money that would be involved as well as bringing the ideas forward to NIU's Board of Trustees and the DeKalb City Council.

In February, Castle Bank representatives drafted a memorandum of understanding and operation agreement that could serve as the framework for a partnership. Those agreements were not signed.

According to the memo, which is dated March 20, in its initial phase the partnership would "include the purchase of real property in a low-to-moderate income tract to be rented to individuals including students." Redevelopment would be completed in various phases and aimed at creating a "physical connection between NIU, the Historic District, and downtown DeKalb to improve the tax base and quality of community life."

Investments from partners were to total $1.35 million. According to the memo, NIU and the city of DeKalb each would contribute $250,000; First State Bank, which owns the mortgages for some properties in the neighborhood that are in foreclosure, would contribute $250,000; First National Nebraska Community Development Corporation, a branch of Castle Bank's parent company specializing in redevelopment projects, would contribute $500,000; and Irving would contribute $100,000.

Communiversity Commons

The area has been the focus of redevelopment discussions before.

When city officials last July updated the City Center Plan, they dubbed the area between First Street and the river “Communiversity Commons.” The area that would have been redeveloped contains mostly older, rental homes.

DeKalb Mayor John Rey said the city has not taken any formal action to redevelop that area aside from adopting the City Center Plan. He declined to comment on the city's position with a public-private partnership.

“Informal conversations have been held," Rey said, "and that's it.”

If you go

What: Preserve Our Neighborhoods press conference

When: 10 a.m. today

Where: The fellowship hall of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 158 N. Fourth St., DeKalb

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