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Thursday, July 19, 2018 12:08 am

Sacred spaces for sale

Benedictine President Dr. Michael Brophy.
“There has to be community engagement on the sale of this campus,” said Ward Five alderman Andrew Proctor at a public meeting held Monday, July 16, regarding the sale of Springfield’s sprawling branch campus of Benedictine University, headquartered in Lisle. The property has been unused since the conclusion of the 2018 spring semester and the decision to sell the campus was made in February. The meeting was touted as the first of several allowing the public to have a voice in any decisions made about the property going forward. Approximately 60 people were in attendance, many with emotional and spiritual attachments to the campus. Some remembered the campus from its time as Ursuline Academy, which had resided on the property beginning in 1867 until closing in 2007.

“For many citizens of springfield this is sacred ground,” said Dr. Michael Brophy, Benedictine’s president, who made a point of referencing the pleasant air conditioning in the gymnasium at St. Angela Hall, where the meeting was conducted. Brophy was quick to assure those assembled that the property would ultimately be used for a suitable purpose, “something appropriate, whether it is cultural or educational,” he said. “We are here and, God willing, will continue to be with you until we find the next identity for this campus.”

Diocese of Springfield communications director Marlene Mulford may have unintentionally muddied the waters by reading a statement which said in part, “The Diocese doesn’t own Benedictine property, we have no say in the sale.” Some felt this called into question Brophy’s assurances that the diocese would be consulted about any sale.

Real estate and brokerage firm Jones Lang Lasalle Americas is handling the sale of the campus. “We are trying to balance the broader goals of Benedictine’s need to dispose of the campus with the expectations of the community,” according to JLL representative Aaron Kurtz, who said that the property is 200,000 square feet total and that the Brinkerhoff Home’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places could make it eligible for tax credits (JLL has established a website dedicated to the property at springfieldcampusoffering.com). “We are working with colleagues in Hong Kong and London to market the opportunity internationally,” Kurtz said. “We are far from receiving a firm offer. Until we receive something in writing, you should consider this still very much an open market process.”

Springfield economic development director Val Yazell spoke regarding local incentives, including the recently established Peoria Road TIF district, which encompasses the campus. “TIFs can facilitate development processes which might not happen otherwise,” she said, mentioning that the property’s current zoning status would allow future developers to use it for “single-family and duplex residences, apartment hotels, boarding and lodging houses, assisted living facilities, aquariums, art galleries, civic auditoriums, clubs, convents or monasteries, fraternity or sorority  houses, group community residences, gymnasiums, public libraries and radio or television studios.”

Frank Butterfield of nonprofit organization Landmarks Illinois said that while the campus has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, that inclusion “does not prevent anyone from altering, expanding, demolishing or painting purple polka dots” on a historic building, pointing out that such protections are more often local, via zoning and landmark ordinances. He explained that historic properties are often eligible for federal historic tax credits, amounting to a 20 percent credit for rehab work. “If these buildings are torn down, the incentives go away,” he said, mentioning that there are examples across the state of Illinois, including Springfield’s Inn at 835, at 835 S. Second St., which have leveraged these incentives to “spectacular” results.

“We believe that the university could be able to sell the entire property for around $3 million,” Brophy said, also mentioning that he expects to sell the large campus as one unit to a single purchaser who would use the property in a way consistent with the desires of the community.

“I can’t imagine the city approving something radically different,” he said.

Scott Faingold can be reached at faingold@illinoistimes.com.

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