DeKALB – DeKalb city leaders are backing a Northern Illinois University plan to redevelop a vacant city-owned lot, which is set to be the “largest privately funded project” in university history behind only Barsema Hall, NIU Chief of Staff Matt Streb said.
The NIU Center for Greek Life is planned for the vacant lot at the intersection of West Hillcrest Drive and Blackhawk Road after a separate proposal by DeKalb County Community Gardens was rescinded. The sale of the land from the city to university has not yet been finalized.
A decision authorizing an option to enter into a redevelopment agreement came in a 7-0 vote at a recent DeKalb City Council meeting following extensive input from city leaders and members of the public.
Third Ward Alderman Tracy Smith was absent.
NIU Foundation Trustee Jeff Liesendahl praised city leaders for all they’ve done to revitalize the Annie Glidden North neighborhood to this point. He said he looks forward to seeing what more can be done to effect change on the city’s north side.
“I’m excited to be part of hopefully one small piece of that to support this Greek Life Center there,” Liesendahl said. “We hope this to be the cornerstone of the revitalization of that ‘L’ there. We are working very hard to get that done.”
It will be the largest privately funded project that we have had in our 128-year history only behind Barsema Hall. So much so that we are getting ready to launch a $500 million campaign, and we have chosen to make the Greek Life Center a central part of that campaign.”— NIU Chief of Staff Matt Streb
City Manager Bill Nicklas lauded the City Council for its support, saying the NIU Foundation deserves it.
“I think it’s important that we proceed and let our partners know that we’re in full support of their concept,” Nicklas said.
Streb acknowledged that people may question why NIU has targeted this specific property. He said he wants the community to trust that the lot and its redevelopment is in good hands.
“There may be benefits of moving Greek row entirely out of the Annie Glidden neighborhood, but that is not in the best interest of the community,” Streb said. “I want to be clear we are committed to the revitalization of the Annie Glidden North neighborhood, and we are committed to this project.
“So much so that it will be the largest privately funded project that we have had in our 128-year history only behind Barsema Hall. So much so that we are getting ready to launch a $500 million campaign, and we have chosen to make the Greek Life Center a central part of that campaign.”
The city originally had solicited for interest in redeveloping the estimated 4.87-acre property in January only to receive two responses: one from the NIU Foundation to build the NIU Center for Greek Life, and another from DeKalb County Community Gardens to construct the Community Health Education and Food Center, according to city documents.
Discussion on this topic has drawn crowds to both public and town hall meetings dating back to April, when city leaders had the chance to hear presentations from both DCCG and NIU.
The NIU Foundation has proposed a plan described by city leaders as “only a concept” and “lacking in fine details” to build a 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot building dubbed the NIU Center for Greek Life on about 2 acres at West Hillcrest Drive and Blackhawk Road, according to city documents.
The facility would encompass space for fraternity and sorority life offices, a large event space, a warming kitchen, lounge space, tutoring/counseling space, conference room, study zone space and a private courtyard garden.
DCCG had wanted to build a mixed-use facility on about 4.87 acres that would provide space for several uses, including greenhouses, a demonstration garden, garden center, food market, food hub, shared-use commercial kitchen, food court, gathering spaces, shared office space and multipurpose rooms.
DCCG founder Dan Kenney said the DCCG is opting out of its proposed efforts to develop the lot at West Hillcrest Drive and Blackhawk Road.
“Residents of the Annie Glidden North community deserve the very best that we – DeKalb County Community Gardens, NIU and the city of DeKalb – can offer,” Kenney said. “When we first proposed our plans for the CHEF Center on the ‘L’ lot of West Hillcrest [Drive] and Blackhawk [Road], we were excited at all the future opportunities that could happen on this property and pleased that everything we had planned were laid out well in the allotted community.
“As time went on, however, it became clear that our plans and specifically our major profit-generating resources would not fit with the desires of the combined space for DCCG, the NIU Center for Greek Life and room for future development of the nearly 5-acre area.”
Kenney said DCCG is not quashing its plans to build the CHEF Center in DeKalb altogether.
“To honor our dual commitments to the community and our donors, DCCG began exploring additional options and alternative sites,” Kenney said.
According to city documents, DCCG has accepted an offer for the purchase of 8.47 acres of undeveloped property within city limits along Annie Glidden Road, just north of Arcadia and Ridge drives, to build its CHEF Center.
Kenney said the location has proven to be a better financial investment for DCCG and will allow for expansion and additional services.
University leaders have said their goal with the NIU Center for Greek Life is to serve as the focal point of student life and activity for Greek students to gather, meet, eat and socialize.
The facility also will serve as a space for students to prepare for exams, complete projects and engage in group discussions related to academics, according to city documents.
University leaders have said their intent is to use the NIU Center for Greek Life to help drive and maintain student membership in Greek life.
The university has about 700 fraternity and sorority students, according to city documents.
University leaders have said some fraternities and sororities do not have a space to call their own, while others do.
The facility, once built, would provide all Greek life students with a space to gather, according to city documents.
Streb disputed the idea that Greek life students are privileged, something often portrayed in TV, film and other media.
“Our Greek life students look like our overall student body,” Streb said. “More than half of our Greek life students are Pell [grant] eligible. More than half of our Greek life students are students of colors. Roughly half of our Greek life students are first generation. These are not students of privilege.”
Mayor Cohen Barnes, also an NIU alum, said that the way the university has demonstrated its commitment to the Annie Glidden North community is wonderful to see.
“For me, to see Northern Illinois University leaning in so heavy on Greek row, on Greek life and in Annie Glidden North, I couldn’t say enough as a Huskie how proud I am to continue to be a Huskie and just how excited I am to see this project come to fruition,” Barnes said.
Glenn Roby, a longtime member of the NIU Greek community and vice president of Opportunity DeKalb, said he is glad DCCG was able to find a more suitable location for its project. But he said he doesn’t want NIU to take the ownership and development of this lot lightly.
“Whatever happens here, especially to the students and staff, be impactful not only to the lives that you all have as members of the Greek community but more importantly to that neighborhood,” Roby said. “Use this as an opportunity – should it be fully considered and fully developed – to live your values. Be responsible for the oaths that you took when you became members of your individual organizations and leave a lasting impact and legacy of the community of DeKalb.”
The property at the intersection of Blackhawk and West Hillcrest Drive and its redevelopment plan will require additional council approvals in the future.
City leaders also are expected to give consideration to a final survey plat, development agreement, and conceptual building and site plan approvals.