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After Two Years, Catholic Dorm Plan at UIC Remains 'in Limbo'

By Chloe Riley | January 23, 2014 8:55am
 Plans for the five-story Catholic dorm have been on hold since 2012.
Newman Center Dormitory Proposal
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UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — Two years after it was proposed, a plan to turn the site of a 144-year-old church building into a Catholic dormitory serving University of Illinois at Chicago students remains in limbo.

The Newman Center — a Catholic foundation that runs a student center on UIC’s campus — initially proposed razing the church at 1352 S. Union Ave. and replacing it with a 17-story dormitory. In January 2012, the project was scaled back to a five-story building housing 280 students due to complaints from area residents.

But in order to move ahead with plans for the dorm, the lot requires a zoning change, which would need the support of Ald. James Balcer (11th). Those involved with the project said Balcer pledged to make a decision on the property by the end of last year.

On Wednesday, Balcer said he still hadn't decided, saying he had “more pressing issues” like potholes to deal with.

“I don’t have an answer right now. The situation is constantly changing. … It’s just one of those issues in my opinion that’s fluid,” he said.

He gave no timeline for making a decision, although the center's lawyer, Gery Chico — a former mayoral candidate and state Board of Education president — is scheduled to meet with the alderman next week to discuss the next steps for the project.

The lack of decision-making has frustrated those pushing for the dorm.

“For some reason, Ald. Balcer keeps saying he’s going to make a decision, but then he won’t. He just doesn’t know how to deal with it, and, like all aldermen, he’s worried about losing votes,” said the Rev. Patrick Marshall, the Newman Center’s director and head chaplain.

The proposed Catholic dorm would be the second at the University of Illinois, which has a Newman Hall at its Champaign-Urbana campus. The foundation is in expansion mode after opening a Catholic dorm at Troy University — Alabama’s third largest public university — earlier this year.

While UIC spokesman Bill Burton wouldn't say whether his campus supported the project or not, he said the school was "interested to see how [the project] moves forward" as the campus sought more students from outside of Chicago.

"We're looking to increase our enrollment of international and out-of-state students. We're always exploring the options for additional student housing," Burton said Wednesday.

The church building, which was most recently the home of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church, hasn't held services since 2005, although it was used for community art classes as recently as 2008. It sits next to a parking garage for the University Village South Campus development and directly across from the Dan Ryan Expressway.

The closest homes to the development are across a field — part of which would remain parkland under the Newman proposal — in the 1400 block of South Emerald Avenue. Many of the properties in the small collection of homes carry property values in excess of $1 million.

Jesse Spungin, who owns a home on Emerald, said the University Village area — which includes dorms, townhomes and condos that are home to many university employees and an event hall — didn't need more students.

In a petition sent to Balcer in June, Spungin and other Emerald Street residents said the original plan for the South Campus indicated there would be "natural barriers" between student housing and private homes.

They complained that a church that would be a part of the dorm would "likely add a significant amount of additional traffic in addition to the increased traffic from the dorm students." They also objected to the fact that the dorm would target freshman and sophomore students, "who are the most transient population at UIC and most incidents happen within that demographic."

Spungin, who recently moved to California, said he refused to sell his home while plans for the dorm were still up in the air and would like to see the property developed into mid-to high-level residential units.

“I don’t care if it takes 20 years. I will not sell that house,” he said.

Both proponents and opponents of the plan have produced surveys of area residents supporting their positions.

Also weighing in on the proposal is the Maxwell Street Foundation — a Near West Side preservation group. The building was listed on the advocacy group Preservation Chicago’s list of seven most threatened buildings in 2012.

Maxwell Street Foundation’s president, Lori Grove, said the group would rather see the building restored and used as a community center, although she acknowledged funding hasn't been secured to support that proposal.

According to Marshall, the church already had close to $6 million in private pledges and would need to raise an additional $8 million to fund the project, whose total cost was estimated at $32 million. Part of his proposal includes helping manage local homelessness issues, maintain a park on the property and assist in the re-greening of the Dan Ryan expressway right-of-way which is immediately to the east of the property.

Until a decision is made, Marshall said, he “prays every day” for Balcer’s answer.

“We would appreciate some kind of response,” Marshall said. “Sitting in limbo is not a good place to be.”