DeKALB – While residents had mixed feelings about the project, members of the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission were largely in support of a plan by DeKalb-based developer John Pappas to build a third mixed-use retail space downtown.
On Wednesday in front of the city’s planning commission, Pappas, of Pappas Development LLC, presented his concept for a $13.8 million project to redevelop two parcels of land, commonly referred to as the Mooney building, 204 N. Fourth St., and 423/420 Oak St.
The site would be demolished and rebuilt into two four-story, 56,000-square-foot buildings. Each would have 40 luxury apartment units, including 22 two-bedroom and 18 one-bedroom units, and 12,000 square feet on the ground level for retail space in each building.
Paul Sauser, who owns a neighboring property in the 500 block of East Locust Street, said nobody else is stepping up to redevelop the downtown.
“We got one guy, John Pappas, standing in line,” Sauser said. “It’s a line of one offering to fix this and make this really nasty commercial building one block from our downtown go away.”
A number of residents questioned why the existing structures needed to be demolished, and could not instead be refurbished from the inside out while preserving the historic nature of the building.
Pappas said he tested the city’s market for luxury apartments by rehabbing 65 units near Northern Illinois University, and was able to increase the rent from $700 to $950 because of the success. The units were rented by young professionals, not undergraduate students, he said.
Pappas said bringing young professionals to the area who will contribute to sales tax revenue and population growth.
“I’m totally convinced there’s a market in DeKalb,” Pappas said. “Unless you have the right people living in downtown with decent salaries – young professionals – it’s very difficult to attract businesses. Risk follows growth.”
Once home to the former Mooney Chevrolet car dealership, the site has been vacant since 2012, when the dealership moved to Sycamore, agenda documents show. An attempt to sell it at auction earlier this year attracted no bids.
Pappas has requested $3 million in tax increment financing assistance from the city, and the council gave their consensus to move forward with an incentive agreement May 13.
John Morton, of Ninth Street, said the design felt “cold and uninteresting,” and expressed interest in creating an arts cooperative for the space instead, presenting his own plans to the commission.
“If the city’s going to allow an existing building with good bones and history to be torn down, the replacement needs to be remarkably better,” Morton said. “Are commercial spaces what DeKalb really needs? One only has to take a walk downtown to see the number of storefronts already vacant.”
David Kolars, of Franklin Street, said that as a farm boy, he was raised to not waste anything.
“I’d hate to see a building as structurally sound as that torn down without knowing what it would cost to be in compliance with the EPA,” Kolars said.
Dan Olson, principal planner for the city, said that while the city often recommends redevelopment of existing structures, this case is different because of the $400,000 needed for environmental remediation. The building was constructed as a barbed-wire factory in the 19th century and then used as an auto repair shop, so there will be obvious issues to deal with, such as asbestos and oil cleanup, City Manager Bill Nicklas has said.
“Personally, with the EPA issues, and the way the structure is, especially the north wall, I wouldn’t touch the property, I wouldn’t even waste my time,” Pappas said. “I was born in a country that founded democracy and they have more old buildings than half the world combined. They got one minor problem: they’re broke. So it’s great to save some of that stuff, but that’s not the building to save.”
While the concept plans include 177 parking spots, Olson said the city’s Unified Development Ordinance would require 212 spots based on the bedroom count and retail space. He said Pappas plans to conduct a parking study, and has already discussed amending the design. Nicklas said Wednesday that the site edits have already found a way to include 17 more parking spots.
Commissioner Katharina Barbe said that while she liked the general plan, she, along with other commissioners and Morton, felt the exterior could look better.
“I don’t want to offend but it looks like a prison,” Barbe said.
Pappas said that while the exterior could be improved, such plans would increase the rental price of the units.