DeKalb residents debate 2 development proposals for Annie Glidden North neighborhood on city-owned vacant lot

Residents also weigh in on city’s proposal for developing vacant lot at northwest corner of West Hillcrest Drive, Blackhawk Road.

Attendees listen as Clint-Michael Reneau, vice president for student affairs at Northern Illinois University, talks about the proposed NIU Center for Greek Life during the informational meeting Thursday, May 18, 2023, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb. The meeting centered on the the proposed plans for the vacant lot on the corner of Blackhawk Road and Hillcrest Drive in DeKalb.

DeKALB – DeKalb residents turned out by the dozens to weigh in at a town hall meeting this week on how best to develop a city-owned vacant lot at the northwest corner of West Hillcrest Drive and Blackhawk Road.

The city has received two submitted proposals for potential consideration: one from DeKalb County Community Gardens to build a Community Health Education and Food (or CHEF) Center and another from Northern Illinois University, to construct a Greek Life Community Center.

When the City Council met in April, DeKalb city leaders expressed hesitations about picking one development proposal over another, instead wanting to see collaboration between the two projects. During the town hall meeting hosted Thursday at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, 1201 Twombly Road, city officials said city staff have been developing their own ideas for how to combine the new projects. No additional plans have been made public since the April meeting.

Heather Edwards, DeKalb County Community Gardens’ executive director, said she took issue with the city and its plan, which Edwards said would reduce the nonprofit’s original concept.

“The city’s proposal of DCCG building only part of our facility on this property will not work,” Edwards said. “The city’s removal of the greenhouses and the garden center, which were listed on the focus area of desired items, are vital components of DCCG’s business plan. Their removal will decrease year-round food production, job training and job opportunities. The revenue generated financially supports the organization and is a major part of the revenue stream. … The city’s proposal will not allow DCCG’s project to be sustainable.”

About half of those gathered at the church said they were Annie Glidden North neighborhood residents. Many in the crowd expressed support for the CHEF Center proposal.

City Manager Bill Nicklas addressed Heather’s concern, saying he doesn’t want the city’s plan to be viewed as a third option. There will only be two concepts up for consideration when the City Council looks to vote on the measures in June, he said.

Clint-Michael Reneau, Northern Illinois University’s vice president for student affairs, said the university sees the chance to develop the vacant L-shaped lot as a great opportunity for the city.

“We know that both DCCG’s CHEF Center and our Greek Life Center strengthen Annie Glidden North,” Reneau said. “These opportunities are better together than they are in a single form.”

The two proposals concern the acquisition and redevelopment of a 4.87-acre property at the corner of Blackhawk and Road and Hilllcrest Drive, which formerly was home to Hunter Hillcrest, Campus Cinema and Andreacchi Trust until the parcels came under city ownership between 2019 and 2022. Hunter Hillcrest Shopping Center was demolished by the city last summer. The former movie theater was demolished in 2020.

NIU’s plan would build an NIU Center for Greek Life, a new space for the university’s Greek students to gather, eat and socialize.

The 10,000-square-foot to 12,000-square-foot building would consist of meeting spaces, study and social lounge spaces, offices for university staff, a large event space that can be divided into multiple smaller spaces, an outdoor courtyard, a warming kitchen and a “chef center” food service hub with grab-and-go machines and display areas including fresh food, according to city documents. The facility is projected to cost the university $5 to $7 million to build, according to city documents. NIU leaders in April offered the city $200,000 for the land.

DeKalb County Community Gardens Founder Dan Kenney, along with executive director Heather Edwards, discuss their proposal during the informational meeting Thursday, May 18, 2023, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb. The meeting centered on the the proposed plans for the vacant lot on the corner of Blackhawk Road and Hillcrest Drive in DeKalb.

Another proposal submitted by DeKalb County Community Gardens would offer the city $200,000 for 4.87 acres of land as project leaders seek to build a nearly $10 million facility dubbed the Community Health Education and Food (CHEF) complex.

The concept proposes a mixed-use development that aims to serve the needs of Annie Glidden North Neighborhood residents, community stakeholders, NIU’s Greek life community and other college/university students by providing space for greenhouses, a demonstration garden, garden center, food market, food hub, shared-use commercial kitchen, food court, gathering spaces, shared office space multipurpose rooms and more, according to city documents.

Some people at the town hall meeting questioned the university’s plans for the vacant lot.

DeKalb resident Mike Baron-Jeffrey asked what’s being done in terms of feasibility.

“I ask that question because at least two to three properties are no longer inhabited by Greeks and one of them is in receivership,” Baron-Jeffrey said. “What is the demand for it?”

Reneau replied, saying the university has identified the Annie Glidden North Neighborhood as prime area for Greek Life to set up shop.

“When you talk about the two houses that are no longer in use, part of this is that recruitment piece, trying to get folks interested, trying to get folks to take part in this,” Reneau said.

Attendees listen to speakers during the informational meeting Thursday, May 18, 2023, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb. The meeting centered on the the proposed plans for the vacant lot on the corner of Blackhawk Road and Hillcrest Drive.

Some residents expressed support for DCCG’s proposal over NIU’s.

Loreen Stravers, who lives in the Annie Glidden North Neighborhood, said she believes NIU’s student population is transient and said there must be a better way to put the property to use.

“I know that enrollment is down,” Stravers said. “I find it hard to believe that there couldn’t be some sort of dedicated space on campus for the kinds of activities that they need.”

Sid Kincaid, who also lives in the Annie Glidden North Neighborhood, said he doesn’t believe building a Greek Life Center would be productive. He said he doesn’t buy the argument that Greek Life students are under-privileged.

“If they want to be neighbors, fine, let’s create a space for them,” Kincaid said. “I believe the rich deserve a seat at the table. I just don’t believe they deserve all the seats at the table.”

DeKalb resident Malia James questioned if DeKalb County Community Gardens’ proposal would fall apart if the project leaders relocate the growing plot away from the nearby liquor store.

“Would the whole project crumble if we relocated that to a different place that that could be better managed or protected?” James asked.

Dan Kenney, DeKalb County Community Gardens founder, tried to lessen the concern.

“We have gardens at many different locations where that possibility can occur,” Kenney said. “We have not had major problems with that issue at all.”

The City Council will have the final say on how the lot is ultimately developed. According to its request for proposal, the city holds the “right to waive any proposal, to reject any or all proposals, or to contract directly with any party in its sole discretion” concerning the Hillcrest/Blackhawk property.

The City Council is expected to decide between the proposals put forth by DeKalb County Community Gardens and Northern Illinois University at the council’s June 12 meeting.

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