NEIU expansion invokes eminent domain

Property owners mounting fight

July 9, 2014

(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Dolly Tong’s family stands to lose their property at 3411 W Bryn Mawr Ave. Her family’s original restaurant there was included in a book that chronicled the history of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Northeastern Illinois University is taking a big gamble: that if it finally builds on-campus housing, it can reverse declining student enrollment. But the way the university’s going about this has upset some neighbors. The university plans to acquire the properties through eminent domain, leaving owners on one block of W Bryn Mawr Ave. with little say in the matter.

Depending on who’s speaking, the 3400 block of W Bryn Mawr Ave. could be described as “sleepy,” “stagnant,” or “depressed.” But nearly every storefront is occupied. On the south side sit a Chinese restaurant, dental clinic, hair salon, and hookah cafe. On the north side, a travel agency, real estate agency, bank, and 7-11.

On a recent morning, two surveyors were casing the street. They said they were there for “the university,” measuring the dimensions of the buildings and their properties. The information could go into an appraisal of the properties’ values.

“My grandfather developed this building in 1954 and built it from the ground up,” Dolly Tong said, about her family’s property at 3411 W Bryn Mawr, which now houses a Chinese restaurant called Hunan Wok. Tong and her siblings were raised in the apartment above the restaurant space, and she still lives there with her elderly mother, whom she describes as severely disabled.

Tong said she and her siblings are only able to care for their mother with the rent they receive from leasing out the restaurant. So last winter, when they received a letter from NEIU stating that it intended to acquire the property for some compensation, she was devastated.

“We’re already feeling now this impending doom that they’re going to take away our family’s legacy,” she said. “It’s really hard.”

Five other property owners are facing the same prospect, including the parents of John Boudouvas. His family owns the parcels just east of Tong’s. Boudouvas said when his family received their letter from NEIU, he accompanied his parents to speak with a university lawyer about it. They told the lawyer they didn’t want to sell.

“And he goes, ‘well, the university wants it, and they’re going to eventually end up getting it,’” Boudouvas recalled. “And that’s when I paused and I looked at him and I said, ‘well, how can you guys use eminent domain?’ And as I said that I realized the university is owned by the state.”

Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property for its own use. It has to offer those property owners compensation. But Boudouvas, Tong, and other property owners say NEIU’s offer was pitiful. And they all want to know the same thing: Why won’t the university build on property it already owns?

“I think it is a really good question,” said Dr. Sharon Hahs, President of NEIU. Hahs said a 2008 student housing feasibility study identified a second site for student housing, in addition to the block on Bryn Mawr Ave. It sits on Foster Ave., on the south end of the campus, by the athletic fields.

“The answer lies somewhat in what is the most help to the community sooner,” said Hahs.

The university is planning two large multi- use buildings -- one on each side of Bryn Mawr.  The ground floor would feature new retail and restaurants.  Above those, enough dorm rooms would be built to fit 500 beds. Hahs hopes the project will set off a domino effect of revitalization, extending east down Bryn Mawr.

“We need to change the character of the neighborhood,” Hahs said. “It is economically depressed. And something will have to change for that to occur.”

While the university frames its decision as a desire to inject some economic pep into the slumbering Hollywood-North Park neighborhood, it’s also about the school’s survival. Last fall, NEIU enrollment dipped below 11,000 for the first time since 2001. Hahs is focused on reversing that by recruiting a greater number of students from more than fifty miles away. But she said that won’t work if the university does not offer housing for them to live in, or the amenities of a lively, young neighborhood.

The plan threatens to split the community into two camps. For Janita Tucker, who owns a home several blocks west of NEIU, this has been a long time coming.

“My husband and I purchased the property here in part because it was so close to Northeastern and North Park University,” she said, “and we wanted that university town vibe.”

But many other residents, who live in closer proximity to the proposed development, fear student dorms could change the character of their neighborhood for the worse.

Both sides have hired lawyers, and Tong is spearheading a coalition of business and property owners against the property takeover. Litigation could mean it will be years before anything really happens. But quietly, many property owners concede that unless NEIU voluntarily backs off the plan, they suspect this will be a losing fight.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.