NORTH PARK — Northeastern Illinois University's plan to build off-campus student dorms in the 3400 block of West Bryn Mawr Avenue has property owners in the university's path crying "land grab."
NEIU needs to purchase eight commercial buildings on Bryn Mawr, between Kimball and Bernard avenues, in order to make room for a 280,000-square-foot mixed-use residential/retail space. The $50 million project would be constructed in partnership with a private developer, still to be selected, and house a yet-to-be-determined number of students.
"We do expect somewhere around 100 to 125 units," NEIU spokeswoman Erika Krehbiel said via email.
Patty Wetli explains why some neighbors feel that NEIU's expansion plans are simply a "land grab:"
Two of the eight building owners have sold to the university but the remaining six are digging in their heels — organizing via the website NEIU Land Grab.
To acquire the properties, NEIU will likely need to exercise eminent domain.
'We Want to Stay'
Garrick Beil's parents, now both in their 80s, built the structure at 3405 W. Bryn Mawr — home to a 7-Eleven and TCF Bank — in 1970.
"We've been in the community for 45 years. They built the property to secure their retirement," said Garrick, representing the elder Beils at a recent community meeting. "They're not interested in selling; it's their primary source of income."
Beil said the offer his family received from NEIU for their property was half the value of three assessments he obtained independently.
Dolly Tong, whose grandfather built 3411 W. Bryn Mawr in 1954, similarly characterized NEIU's offer as "pitiful."
The family relies on rent from tenants — currently Hunan Wok — to pay for care for her elderly mother.
"They are taking now while values are low," Tong said of NEIU's bid.
"We are being forced to move and we want to stay," she said. "We have been part of this community before NEIU."
NEIU's Krehbiel clarified that the university had not yet filed for eminent domain and that the offers sent to building owners were just the beginning of the negotiating process.
"We put the offer out, they counter," she said.
Tong questioned the use of eminent domain — employed when a project serves a public purpose — given the involvement of a private developer and private funds for the dorms.
"Does retail meet the criteria?" she asked.
NEIU President Sharon Hahs, who spearheaded the creation of student housing at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville where she previously served as provost, said the public-private model is the path most universities are taking when building dorms due to the lack of available state funds.
"The retail is to create a tax base," she said.
Decade of Dreams
The housing development — a second, 160,000-square-foot dorm is being proposed for Foster Avenue on land the university already owns — is just one component of NEIU's "Decade of Dreams," itself a prong in the school's strategic plan, which aims to bolster the university's reputation both inside and outside of Chicago.
"If we stand still and do nothing, people will go elsewhere," said Hahs.
Decade of Dreams encompasses a half-dozen major facilities projects, a wish-list that includes a new science building, a new child care center and the expansion of the university's performing arts building.
Of the projects, the only one to receive funding from the state so far is a $73 million 160,000-square-foot education building, which is expected to open in 2017, though ground has yet to be broken.
As the education profession requires more use of technology, NEIU students have found that some high schools are better wired than the university, according to Hahs.
"We have waited a long time for that building," she said.
Time to Catch Up
Founded in 1867 as a teachers prep college, NEIU established its 67-acre North Park campus in 1961 and carved out a niche as a low-cost commuter option for Chicago's college students. It enrolls 11,000 students between its main campus and three satellites, the majority of whom live within a 50-mile radius, according to Hahs.
In recent years, particularly since the 2007 arrival of Hahs, NEIU has grown more ambitious, adding majors, gaining accreditations for a number of its programs and recruiting more international students, who comprise 2 percent to 3 percent of enrollment, according to Hahs.
"We really are a global university," she said.
The fact that NEIU has zero student housing — it's the only public university in Illinois completely devoid of residential space — puts it at a disadvantage, said Hahs.
It poses a particular problem for international students, she noted, but it's also become an issue with local enrollees.
"Parents want students to have that residential experience. It's time to catch up," Hahs said. "It's a piece of what's needed for us to thrive."
Lacking the space for a contiguous block of housing within the boundaries of its North Park campus, NEIU fixed its eye on Bryn Mawr.
Busy Being Serious
Though Hahs said student housing on Bryn Mawr would not only satisfy a need of the university's but goose economic growth along the thoroughfare as well, the North Park community in general — factoring out the Bryn Mawr building owners — is split over whether the dorms are a positive development for the neighborhood.
"Cautiously optimistic" is how Jewel Klein, president of the Hollywood North Park Community Association, characterized the overall response.
"Concerns are, number one, parking," she said. "What are the parking accommodations for the retail component? The other piece is, why would we believe students would park at the university, which is supposed to be a condition of the lease?"
The other issue most often broached by neighbors: the effect college students will have on an otherwise quiet residential area.
"There's some concern about the students, period, based on the assumption that they stay up late, make a lot of noise and drink a lot," said Klein.
Hahs pointed out that the average age of an NEIU student is 26 to 27 years old, with many of them holding down full- or part-time jobs while attending school.
"Our students are extraordinarily serious," she said. "Even those in our residence halls are going to be busy being serious."
'It Probably Will Be Positive'
Some neighbors would welcome a livelier Bryn Mawr.
"A burgeoning population might revive that area," said Janita Tucker, a 22-year North Park resident. Young people "can bring a vitality to the neighborhood."
Though Tucker tries to keep her dollars local, she said she frequently finds herself heading to Foster Avenue or Lincoln Square for shopping and dining.
Rejuvenation efforts related to Bryn Mawr have been underway for years, according to Judie Simpson of HNPCA, who described the once thriving district as a "lost business zone."
There's no CTA bus route along the avenue, she said, and small businesses have suffered not only from the recession but changing shopping patterns.
"People say, 'There should be a bookstore.' There's not a bookstore anywhere," said Simpson.
"I feel like we've hit a dead end," she said in terms of community support. "We've run out of our volunteer ideas."
NEIU has at least brought people and fresh ideas to the table, she said.
"They seem to be at least heading in the right direction," Simpson said. "It probably will be positive. New businesses bring new energy."
Tucker pointed to the neighborhoods around the University of Illinois-Chicago, from which two of her three children have graduated, as an example of how a university can provide a shot in the arm to dormant retail corridors.
"The new development in that area is fantastic," said Tucker. "I can't speak for everyone ... but anything that improves the quality of Northeastern improves our neighborhood."
It Comes Down to Money
For the business owners on Bryn Mawr, the outlook isn't so rosy.
"We're really unhappy. We really don't want to go," said Sander Caren.
His mother founded J. Caren Real Estate "40 to 45 years ago," he said, and the company's offices at 3412 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. have been his second home for as long as he can remember.
"They came here and told us either we sell to them voluntarily or they'll take it," said Caren. "I like the school. ... Of course the school has a right to grow. ... I just wish they wouldn't take our property."
"I respect the anger of the property owners," said Hahs, but added that the economic development of the area was a "worthy" goal.
"The sooner something new and different happens there" the better, she said.
For Dolly Tong, the notion that university housing will revitalize businesses along Bryn Mawr stings all the more, knowing her family won't benefit from the area's anticipated success.
"Why can't we take advantage of property values going up?" she asked. "That's what we've been waiting for. We want to be the next Lincoln Square."
Though the NEIU Land Grab group plans to continue to fight the university — a rally is in the works, with the date and time to be determined — Cander said, "I think it's a losing battle."
If offered a good price for his building, "I'll go," he said. "It really comes down to money. We understand business is business. It's not personal at all."