DeKalb residents pose questions to developer’s apartment plans for former St. Mary’s hospital

City commission gives initial review of proposal for 100-year-old building

A DeKalb developer is proposing to renovate the long-vacant former St. Mary’s Hospital, a 100-year-old building on Fisk Avenue, into 32 one and two-bedroom apartments. Concept art for the plans is shown here (project concept plans provided by City of DeKalb on March 31, 2022 )

DeKALB – Preliminary plans by a developer to renovate the long-vacant former St. Mary’s hospital on Fisk Avenue into a 32-unit apartment building received positive feedback this week from DeKalb residents.

Early feedback related to the plans to build one and two-bedroom apartments inside the existing 145 Fisk Avenue, vacant for 30 years, included questions on housing need, capacity and how it would fit into the neighborhood. Developer Jon Sauser was on hand during Monday’s city of DeKalb Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to address questions related to his plan. Commissioners did not vote on any formal plans Monday, but offered a first-round, largely supportive look at the proposal.

Sauser said the idea is to maintain the character of the neighborhood and to bring life back into the building, built in 1922, which sits near the corner of Fisk Avenue and First Street neighboring homes and other rental units.

“The goal is the keep it quiet ... and in line with the neighborhood,” Sauser said.

Longtime DeKalb resident Clifford Cleland, who lives in the 500 block of South Second Street, said he’s in favor of the proposed project. He posed several questions to Sauser, however, including whether the city had a large enough market for the type of apartments Sauser was proposing.

It’s an inquiry that’s come up before in relation to apartment housing projects in DeKalb. In January, another prominent DeKalb developer, Pappas Development, won city approval to begin building a $6 million, 61-unit apartment complex at 1381 Barber Greene Road near the corner of Sycamore Road.

In response, Sauser and DeKalb city staff confirmed one-bedroom apartment projects like ones from Pappas Development are fully occupied.

“That’s a good sign,” Cleland said in response to Sauser.

The four-story, 24,000-square-foot property sits on about 1.3 acres blocks from downtown DeKalb. According to city documents released in the past week, the proposal was put forth by Sauser for the building, which was most recently used by DeKalb School District 428 until 1992, and has sat vacant since.

Sauser has been a landlord and developer in DeKalb for years. In 2017, he sold some rental properties, now known as Hunter Star Properties, on DeKalb’s north side to Evanston-based Hunter Properties.

Under Sauser’s Fisk Avenue proposal, the development would renovate the existing building and construct 23 one-bedroom units about 650 square feet in size, and nine two-bedroom units that will be about 900 square feet. The leases would be at “market rate,” according to project plans.

Robert Carlson, a longtime DeKalb resident and local landlord, voiced his support Monday for the project, and heralded what he said was Sauser’s local and state landlord experience to back up the plans’ merit. Carlson said his family also owns apartment buildings nearby. He said his buildings and Sauser’s proposal would have similar occupancy density.

“That’s very compatible to what I have,” Carlson said.

If Sauser’s proposal moves forward, an official review of development and zoning plans will need to go again before the commission, and then for a city council vote in the future.

Residents also voiced concerns about whether the project would affect surrounding property values. In a project summary document published this week, city staff said the proposal would lift the long-vacant and deteriorating property in the neighborhood.

Although the building is 100 years old, Sauser’s apartment proposal doesn’t include a plan to demolish the existing structure. According to city documents, the space is mostly gutted inside.

Sauser’s development would add modern amenities and improvements to the north side of the building, according to the documents. Plans include a dedicated mail and parcel room for receiving packages, security cameras for the building, a tenant lounge, an exercise room with cardio and weight machines, and an outdoor patio with a natural gas grill.

Each unit would have 10- to 12-foot ceilings, a washer and dryer, central air conditioning, a dishwasher and quartz countertops, according to the documents. The plans also would keep “as many existing, mature ... trees as possible,” in the surrounding area, and update curb, gutter, sidewalks and LED exterior lighting, according to the developer’s plans.

Commissioner Trixy O’Flaherty said she thought Sauser’s proposal would be a good use of the building.

“I like seeing old stuff kept ... and improved in all of the right ways,” O’Flaherty said.

Exterior plans for the proposal include changes to street access for a proposed parking lot that would contain 65 spaces. DeKalb city code requires 57 parking spaces for the number of units proposed, documents show.

Sauser’s plans would remove the existing access on Sycamore Road to the Fisk Avenue property and relocate it away from North First Street. The parking lot would go in between Sycamore Road and the building on Fisk Avenue, which is a one-way street running east to west from North First Street to North Fourth Street.

City staff confirmed Monday they did not identify any major concerns with the preliminary concept plans. However, additional review would need to be made on engineering and stormwater management before final approval.

The developer also will be required to submit a traffic analysis to determine what impacts might occur on Sycamore Road and Fisk Avenue if the apartment complex was built.

The building was constructed in 1922 as St. Mary’s Hospital, which closed in 1965. It served multiple uses thereafter until 1993, when the building was sold and rezoned for multifamily residential use. In 2006, Midwest Estate Development LLC purchased the building and has remained its owner since.

The plan initially was to convert the former hospital to luxury loft apartments – a proposal that also never happened, according to documents. A 2019 proposal for the building has led to a lengthy legal battle between a developer and DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas.

The building at 145 Fisk Ave. no longer falls within any TIF district for the city, following the closing of the city’s second TIF district.