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Local Column

Olson: City block to hit the market in DeKalb

The DeKalb Municipal Building Friday July 6, 2018.
The DeKalb Municipal Building Friday July 6, 2018.

Mayor Jerry Smith told the crowd at the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce’s “State of the City” breakfast Tuesday that the city is being transformed, and one of those transformations yet to come has real potential.

An entire city block just south of downtown will hit the market in the coming months.

The city plans to move its operations out of the Municipal Building at 200 S. Fourth St. and into the Nehring building at Second Street and Lincoln Highway. When that happens – sometime after Jan. 1 – the old City Hall, a substantial parking lot and green space in the block bordered by Fourth and Fifth streets and Franklin and Grove streets will be for sale.

The empty Municipal Annex building on the west side of Fourth already is listed for sale for $375,000. (The Community Center, which the city also owns, is going to continue operating as a senior center and location for the Youth Service Bureau, and is not for sale.)

I asked Smith about his vision for the Municipal Building property.

Smith suggested more higher-end condominiums, similar to those that Pappas Development Co. is building around the downtown area. They’re targeting the young professional, someone who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood and can afford the rent.

One wonders just how many young professionals the market can supply. Pappas’ three projects already will add more than 150 new units in the area. While it seems he’s building a quality product, can’t you just hear people complaining if he’s the one to come forward with a plan for that property too, and likely asking for more tax increment financing incentives to speed the bulldozers?

It would be nice if someone else was willing to invest in DeKalb, too.

Whoever pitches a plan to redevelop the site, odds are they will want something to sweeten the deal. The municipal building property is in a TIF district, and considering that it’s now government-owned, bringing it onto the tax rolls would definitely boost the value of the property and give the city more money to work with in the TIF account.

There are some legitimate obstacles to redeveloping the site, namely the aging building and large parking lot. There’s probably some asbestos in there, and the police used to have a shooting range in the building, which might require some cleanup, too.

I asked Smith if the city would give the property away for next to nothing to jump-start a project.

“I’d hate to think that we’d give anything away, given that we’re talking about a full city block here,” Smith said.

City Manager Bill Nicklas – whom the mayor praised during his speech Tuesday – emphasized that the city is open to any ideas for the property.

They might be fielding inquiries, but they’ll also be able to be a bit choosier than with a normal development plan because this is public property. If the City Council – or their constituents – don’t like the plan, or the buyer, then they shouldn’t have to sell them the property.

Adding people to the downtown area should be a good way to help it thrive and grow. If there are going to be more people, they’re going to need more places to go. Maybe the new housing that Pappas is building around the downtown area will be a shot in the arm for the businesses there, and attract more people. Downtown has its mainstays, and has seen some improvements (Hometown Sports Bar and the Egyptian Theatre renovation) and new openings (Byers Brewing, Tavern on Lincoln, Jamrah), but it could be more.

The former O’Leary’s building has been shuttered since the Irish pub closed almost a year ago; The House Cafe closed again early this year. The McCabe’s building has some nice awnings but hasn’t served a customer since 1999. Owners of Eduardo’s Mexican restaurant and the Hillside Restaurant have both shown interest in selling.

More activity downtown would be a plus, but these young professionals still have to have jobs to afford renting new apartments or condos.

That could make the two businesses that the officials are trying to lure to the ChicagoWest Business Center near Route 23 and Gurler Road critical to this would-be transformation. Bring 1,000 or 1,200 new jobs to town, and there should be a few more people looking for new rental or multifamily housing.

“We’re keeping out municipal fingers crossed,” Smith said, “that our work will result in an exciting transformational announcement.”

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Call him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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