NEIU Wanted These Properties Badly Enough to Invoke Eminent Domain. They’re Still Vacant, So Now What?

NEIU invoked eminent domain to acquire a block of buildings on Bryn Mawr. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)NEIU invoked eminent domain to acquire a block of buildings on Bryn Mawr. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Five years after acquiring a block of properties through eminent domain, Northeastern Illinois University has officially scrapped its plan to build student housing on the site and is casting about for other uses.

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“We must now alter those original plans,” NEIU President Gloria Gibson said during a virtual meeting hosted by the Hollywood North Park Community Association. “The first step has begun.”

NEIU has hired real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle to conduct a market analysis and assess feasible options for the 3400 block of Bryn Mawr Avenue, between Kimball Avenue and Bernard Street.

The study will analyze the community’s demographics, demand within the area’s commercial and residential real estate markets, and trends in the retail, office space and services sectors. Property owned by NEIU near its El Centro campus in Avondale is also part of the study.

“We are not a developer. We’re helping the university understand what’s possible at this site,” said Brian Carroll of JLL.

The shift in the university’s intentions regarding the Bryn Mawr block is the latest twist in a saga that dates back to 2014, when NEIU, under the leadership of then-President Sharon Hahs, unveiled its “Decade of Dreams” strategic plan. 

At the time, NEIU was the lone public Illinois university completely lacking in student housing, something the strategic plan sought to rectify. Though a dormitory — The Nest — has since been built on NEIU’s campus, “Decade of Dreams” pushed forward an ambitious $50 million, 280,000-square-foot residential/retail project, with the stretch of Bryn Mawr identified as the ideal location.

The university set out to buy eight buildings on Bryn Mawr, occupied at the time by businesses including a handful of restaurants, a real estate office, barber shop and a TCF Bank branch. Some of the property owners willingly sold but others refused, and NEIU subsequently invoked eminent domain, a decision that not only led to a protracted legal fight but created a rift within the neighborhood between residents who considered NEIU’s actions an egregious overreach and others who tentatively welcomed the prospect of new mixed-use development in the area.  

In January 2016, NEIU announced it had succeeded in its bid to acquire the entire block. But in the time it took for NEIU’s eminent domain case to work its way through the courts, the landscape had changed dramatically. A budget impasse between then-Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled legislature left the university millions of dollars in the red and sapped its reserves. NEIU’s enrollment has also steadily declined, from a total of 10,275 students in 2014 to 7,119 in fall 2020, taking into account undergraduate, graduate, full-time and part-time students. 

Though the original Bryn Mawr buildings are still standing, they’ve long since been vacated, their whited-out windows presenting a blank face to the street. The sense of stagnation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

A recent survey conducted by the Hollywood North Park Community Association indicates there’s an eagerness among neighbors for something to happen with the properties, but no real consensus around what that something should be, said Andrew Johnson, HNPCA chairman.

The clearest message from the survey is that there’s solid support for mixed-use development, he said.

JLL is expected to present its report to NEIU in April. In the meantime, the university has scheduled a community meeting of its own for Feb. 22. Stakeholders will meet every two weeks, NEIU officials said. 

“It’s very important for the community to understand no decisions have been made about the property. No decisions,” said Gibson. “We’re working with JLL to determine the best uses. The goal of the next two to three months is for to JLL to present to us what those opportunities might be.”

Given the community upheaval the university created with “Decade of Dreams,” Johnson said that neighbors are keen to have their voices heard in conversations about the future of Bryn Mawr.

“We’d like for us to be on the same page and forge a common vision,” he said.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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