DeKalb commission divided over Pappas' proposed development for former city hall

DeKALB – A fifth proposed development planned for the former city hall by Pappas Development will move forward for a city council vote despite a divided Planning and Zoning Commission.

The commission voted 3-3 to approve development plans for a 78-unit, four-building complex proposed for the former Municipal Building, 200 S. Fourth St., with commissioners Christina Doe, Trixy O'Flaherty and Ron Klein voting no. Known as Johann Executive Suites, the $7.5 million development has already won city council approval along with a $750,000 tax increment finance incentive, pending final approval of the architectural plans. The building was sold to Pappas for $600,000, with the caveat that it be demolished by Dec. 31 and completed by 2022.

While the commission was split down the middle on its plans, council is expected to vote on the issue at a later meeting.

O'Flaherty said while she likes the idea of the space being used as residential instead of commercial, she would have preferred a proposal put forward by DeKalb-based developer Steve Irving instead, which proposed single-family homes much like those he built as part of the DeKalb/Pond/Fisk development decades prior.

"My biggest concern are the number of units and the design," Flaherty said, echoing many comments made by several residents who spoke at a Planning and Zoning meeting Oct. 5. "I still don't like the design but its a lot of units on the block. I know the density is comparable to other projects pending but that's a lot of units. I honestly had hoped to see something more like townhouses."

If approved, Johann would be added to a portfolio of four other similar developments, the third proposed within 16 months of each other.

Cornerstone DeKalb, at First and Lincoln Highway, has 51 luxury apartments on the top three floors of the building, and the ground floor houses commercial space including Tavern on Lincoln, Barb City Bagels. Across the street is Plaza DeKalb, a four-story, mixed-use apartment complex at 203, 223, and 229 E. Lincoln Highway. The building’s ground level was expected to have a street-level Mediterranean specialty grocer, although nothing yet inhabits the space.

The third development, Agora Tower – a $13.8 million project which was awarded $3 million in TIF funds from the city in June 2019 – is being built on the grounds of a now-demolished Mooney Car Dealership, which was formerly the oldest barbed wire factory in DeKalb, at the corner of North Fourth and Locust streets since 1881.

Demolition began last November, and the $13.8 million project will take two and a half years to complete. The four-story tower will feature 94 high-end apartment units with retail and office space on the first floor.

A fourth project, Isaac Executive Suites, 2675 Sycamore Road, was approved in June and lies outside of any TIF district boundaries with 59 one-bedroom units with shorter leases, about 9 months, for traveling professionals.

Developer Foti Pappas, vice president of Pappas Development touted the new proposal, Johann Executive Suites, as providing a much-needed living space for DeKalb residents.

"Each one of these four building is going to be built like an individual house or mansion," Pappas said. "They have these beautiful gorgeous entryways, stunning staircases. And really the market here is going to be building on that young middle-aged older professional, downsizing retiree, traveling work professional that again wants that fully furnished, full utilities include, hotel style amenity."

Like much of the proposed Pappas-led developments, the studio and one bedroom apartments will come fully furnished, with utilities included and enough parking (140 spaces) to allow each unit one-and-a-half off-street parking spaces, Pappas said.

Pappas said the minimum lease will be a 12-month one for Johann. He said Pappas Development's history in the city shows a resident retention rate of 60-65%.

"We're going to be maintaining all the green space that here's currently," Pappas said. "Our goal here is to fit into the neighborhood, not just kind of brazenly come in here. Better than looking at an empty building for 30 years. Really high-end apartments, some really high-end people."

Several neighboring residents came forward to express concern about the proposed facade of the buildings, including concerns over noise, parking and lighting. Throughout the meeting, Pappas said he'd welcome comment from neighbors as they head into further architectural discussion within he city.

Pam Olson, of the 500 block of Franklin Street, said parking is already a problem.

"The parking does concern me a lot," Olson said. "My guests can't park in front of my house now because every neighbor parks there. I want a sign that said 'Residents' parking only' because if [Pappas] comes in there and they have a guest, where are they going to park?"

Rita and Jon McNatt said they moved to DeKalb a year ago to enjoy its historic downtown cobblestone streets and the ability to walk around.

"As lovely as Cornerstone is and your commercial and residential is downtown, the proposal for the facade that you're going to drop in our residential area looks like a Country Inn & Suites," Rita McNatt said. "I does not fit in our neighborhood."

Sata Prescott, of the 400 block of Franklin Street, voiced concern over the development taking away a DeKalb County Community Gardens' plot near the Municipal Building, and said he bought his home because it was "literally cheaper to purchase a house in this town than to rent an apartment." Prescott called the development gentrification and chastised the commission for "fully endorsing this man's stupidity."

"I was just talking with a bunch of new hires at NIU who can't find houses," Prescott said. "They aren't looking for a bunch of [expletive] tiny [expletive] apartments."

Commissioner Christine Doe, who voted against the proposal, said she agrees with the desire to preserve a community garden.

"I think having a garden available...may be really important," Doe said.

In response, Pappas said he's open to critique and suggestions, and "willing to work with everybody to a certain level," and said "we're here to be neighbors."

"There's people out there that say that we’re building empty apartment units," Pappas said. "That’s called clinically insane. And that’s not the case here. There's not only a demand, there's a level of demand that we simply cannot keep up with and especially with all of the new great business coming into this community that level of demand is only continuing to rise."