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NIU neighbors 'want to be involved' with redevelopment plans

DeKALB – Officials with the city of DeKalb and Northern Illinois University want to see the John and Harrison street area redeveloped, but officials said private investors will need to launch those efforts.

Regardless of who will lead redevelopment, neighbors say they are tired of being left in the dark.

“We are putting our hand out and saying work with us,” said Misty Haji-Sheikh, who is leading the group Preserve Our Neighborhoods and also serves on the DeKalb County Board. “We want to be involved.”

Haji-Sheikh’s comments came during a news conference Wednesday that was held in response to a proposed public-private partnership to redevelop the area that never came to fruition.

The city, NIU, a sister company of Castle Bank, 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 agreement called for NIU and DeKalb to contribute $250,000 each to the effort; total initial contributions would have been $1.35 million.

The neighborhood is comprised of older houses, most of which offer bedrooms for rent. Much of John Street also is in a flood plain, which places strict limits what can be built there.

Partnership plans went as far as Castle Bank officials drafting a memorandum of understanding and an operation agreement detailing how much each party would need to invest. College Town Partners also was incorporated as a not-for-profit in December.

The partnership was never brought before DeKalb aldermen or NIU’s Board of Trustees or executed, however.

When Preserve Our Neighborhoods anonymously received the documents, it raised red flags for the group, which has already criticized ideas presented by NIU in its “Bold Ideas Thesis.”

“We feel very strongly that the fact that this document exists shows clear intent,” Haji-Sheikh said.

Since the arrival of new President Douglas Baker in 2013, NIU leaders have sought ways to increase the campus’ connectivity with downtown DeKalb.

NIU backed away from the partnership idea in April when officials realized their main effort would be mitigating flood concerns in the area by dredging the campus’ east lagoon, a task that would have cost well beyond the university’s contribution to the partnership and did not require their involvement in a public-private partnership. However, if NIU does not dredge the lagoon and shrink the flood plain zone, it will be impossible to make any significant changes to the area.

City leaders said they were not involved in drafting the partnership documents. Mayor John Rey said although he believes the area needs change, the city would be involved from the outside by fostering redevelopment rather than guiding it.

“The city can become a more viable player by staying outside,” Rey said.

The city has sought redevelopment in the area for several years. When city officials updated the City Center Plan in July, they dubbed the area between First Street and the river “Communiversity Commons,” noting several areas of improvement.

The area is in a tax increment financing district, which is a special mechanism local governments can use to spur development in blighted areas. As development occurs and property values rise, increased property tax revenue is diverted to a special account that can be used for improvements. Officials have said that the water mains in the area are some of the oldest in the city, for example.

Rey said the city could not be an investor in a project that receives TIF funding.

The city also would need to see a plan from a developer before committing any TIF dollars to the project. Rey said so far, no such ideas have surfaced, although he said he would not be surprised if they do.

“I would highly suspect there are private investors talking about redevelopment in that area,” Rey said.

Adam Chang, who owns two houses in the area, said he would prefer to see the city help locals rehabilitate their properties rather than have a developer come in to raze them.

“That’s the way we should recover the town,” Chang said “Not by tearing things down.”

Helen Weincek, a junior at NIU who has rented on College Avenue for two years, said she sees the disconnect between the university and downtown as well as the need to revamp some of the properties.

“I think they should touch it up a little,” Weincek said, “but keep it historic DeKalb.”

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