DeKALB – Although the city’s Annie Glidden North Revitalization Plan still is in the developmental stages, some projects meant to increase access to food and family-friendly public spaces are beginning to germinate.
The city organized a diverse 30-member task force in September 2017, and officials are hoping private and public interests will work together to implement the recommendations based on interest and feasibility, said Herb Rubin, task force chairman.
“Some [projects] will be done independently, [and] some will be done if we can get some agencies to handle it, and in no particular order,” Rubin said.
The planning has led to a focus on 10 core projects, and 45 overall, meant to improve transportation, infrastructure, open space, community services and safety in the neighborhood in the northwest part of DeKalb, as well as attract new housing and commercial development there.
“This really is a plan by the people, for the people,” said Jo Ellen Charlton, DeKalb community development director.
Leaders are hoping that public and private interests will work together to come up with the labor and money needed to make some of those projects a reality in the changing neighborhood, which has seen a shift in demographics. Where Northern Illinois University students once were the predominant residents of the area, they have been increasingly joined by lower-income residents and families with children. The neighborhood has limited access to public transit, grocery stores, health services and child-friendly open space because it used to cater more to students than families.
Community food and education center
Dan Kenney, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Gardens and AGN task force member, is working to establish a community food and education center in the neighborhood.
“Community shared-use kitchens [are] an idea that’s popping up all around the country,” Kenney said. “The idea is the program would become self-sustaining, help with economic development, job training and employment.”
Kenney said a location has not yet been identified, but he is looking at areas in the north of the neighborhood.
“It would be a new facility, not at an existing site,” Kenney said.
Kenney envisions a center that would perform several functions: a restaurant, a small grocery store, food pantry, outdoor market, commercial shared-use incubator kitchen and food hub and a small urban farm with a greenhouse. By day, the incubator kitchen would be a pay-as-you-can café serving soup, salad and bread, Kenney said.
The center also would be affiliated with NIU’s Northern Illinois Center for Community Stability, a $23 million project announced in October as part of NIU’s inclusion in the Illinois Innovation Network, Kenney said.
Kenney said a Phase 1 funding plan for the food and education center is in the works, and his organization already has secured funding commitments from private donors.
“One of the things I’ve always valued with [DeKalb County Community Gardens] is that we make it a high priority to do collaboration with other nonprofits, municipalities and businesses,” Kenney said.
Redesigning open spaces
Another priority project for task force members is a suggested redesign of the DeKalb Park District’s Welsh Park on Russell Road east of the University Village Apartments.
Task force members have compiled an ambitious list of additions they would like to see, including shaded seating near the basketball court, a new splash pad or other water feature, new playground equipment, free Wi-Fi, more walking paths from the apartments, an outdoor amphitheater, additional trees and lighting, an enclosed hockey rink, public art and additional park programming focused on using the space during the day and at night.
The potential cost of some of those amenities jumped out at Park District board President Phil Young, who said the board would evaluate the project and available grants.
“The plan is good, but the question I have now is, is it doable in terms of buy-in from other agencies?” Young said. “Funding, I think, is a critical thing.”
Young said the only project among the 10 core transformational projects the Park District does not agree with is the creation of a community development corporation.
“People say, ‘We want to do this because we feel these agencies won’t be able to work together,’ ” Young said. “But my comment is that we are different government agencies, but we do work together.”