DeKalb marks demolition of Hillcrest shopping center: ‘Change is happening’, says mayor

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes, flanked by members of the DeKalb City Council and other city officials, speaks during a special meeting of the council Monday, May 9, 2022, in the parking lot of the former Hillcrest Shopping Center. The meeting was held to kick off the demolition process of the strip mall on Hillcrest Drive which will begin Tuesday morning.

DeKALB – DeKalb city leaders gathered Monday to mark what they said is a plan to rehabilitate the north side, including the demolition of Hillcrest shopping center, expected to begin Tuesday.

Timothy Moore was one of about 10 Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity members to meet in front of the Hunter Hillcrest Shopping Center in DeKalb on Monday. The DeKalb City Council held a special meeting to mark the latest step in a monthslong mission to take ownership of the neglected building and redevelop the space.

The building previously was owned by Evanston-based Hunter Properties. The property management company was once the city’s largest landlord, and during its ownership of Hunter Hillcrest and others, including Lincoln Tower and Hunter Ridgebrook apartment complexes, had accrued hundreds of unresolved city code violations for unkempt properties and security failures.

Under city ownership since August, the shopping center’s impending demolition could bring new life into the space, those gathered said Monday.

“It’s a big step and a positive change for the safety of the city,” Moore said. “I drive by the building often, and it’s not a place I wanted to go to. If I did have to stop, I was in and out.”

A year ago, the city announced a settlement had been reached with Hunter Properties in the ongoing legal disputes over the code violations and other legal matters. The city subsequently bought the shopping center from Hunter for $1.18 million in August 2021.

Mayor Cohen Barnes, whose 2021 mayoral campaign included promises to address ongoing issues between Hunter Properties and its tenants, described Monday as “a monumental day.”

“It’s a concrete example that change is happening in the community and that more change is coming,” Barnes said. “From the economic development of the city with Facebook and Amazon, removing bad landlords and increasing and improving the police department and fire department for improved safety for everyone. The times, they are a-changin’, just like the Bob Dylan song.”

Last month, the DeKalb City Council approved a demolition bid of $237,883 to Rockford-based contractor Northern Illinois Services Company for the work.

Once the shopping center has been demolished, Barnes said that the space will remain grassland until a developer comes along.

“The land is not for sale at this point. We will be very choosey and selective who we will sell it to,” Barnes said. “Right now, we’re in the driver’s seat. We will hold onto the property until the right opportunity comes along.”

All tenants of the mixed-use commercial and residential building in the 1000 block of Hillcrest Drive were relocated, City Manager Bill Nicklas said.

According to city records shared with the Daily Chronicle, nine business owners were aided in their relocation efforts from Hillcrest Shopping Center. That includes America Dream Tax, a beauty salon owned by Paula Espiritu, Northern Fresh Market, ClothingIt2, La Salsa, Red Fish and Chicken, Huskies Tobacco and Rocky’s. There also were five residents who relocated from the residential units on the upper levels of the building, according to documents.

To help offset relocation costs for both residential and commercial tenants ahead of the demolition, the city of DeKalb also approved last year a plan to reimburse those tenants for the costs, according to city documents. That includes reimbursement for the first and last months’ rent and a damage deposit at a new rental location, as well as reimbursement for moving expenses. According to city expenditures through April 26, the city has spent $172,543 in developmental services for reimbursement.

The city also used $1.5 million in federal American Recovery Act funds to aid residents and businesses in relocation efforts.

The site sits near another empty lot owned by the city, the former site of the Campus Cinemas building at 1015 Blackhawk Road, demolished in October 2020.

The Hillcrest Shopping Center and the former movie theater create an L-shape east on Hillcrest Drive and north toward Blackhawk Road, which city staff members said they believe will encourage positive development in the area. The land was also highlighted in the city’s Annie Glidden North Revitalization Task Force, which has since morphed into local group Opportunity DeKalb, as a potential space for future development.

The mixed-use rental retail building at 1011 through 1027 Hillcrest Drive is one of four rental properties owned by Hunter Properties that the landlord must sell as part of the approved settlement agreement between the landlord and the city. Hunter Properties is required to sell the buildings by April 2023.

Per the settlement agreement with local landlord Hunter Properties the DeKalb City Council approved a year ago in April 2021, the buildings that Hunter Properties is required to sell include Hunter Ridgebrook, Hunter Tri-Frat, Lincoln Tower and Hunter Hillcrest.

In December, the DeKalb City Council approved a $1 million incentive for Chicago developer Clear Investment Group LLC to buy more than 400 Hunter Properties rental units in the city, including Lincoln Tower, Hunter Tri-Frat and Hunter Ridgebrook.

Glenn Roby described the Hillcrest shopping center as “a blighted property.” Roby is a board member of Opportunity DeKalb, which is a nonprofit organization seeking the revitalization of the Annie Glidden North neighborhood.

“I’m excited because it’s an opportunity to start anew,” Roby said. “I’m looking forward to seeing change come to that part of town. ... It’s a beautiful part of town because of its potential. The community needs vibrant properties, and now this property will have the opportunity to bring something potentially great to DeKalb.”

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