North Central science center OK’d by Naperville City Council

The area south of Van Buren Avenue between Loomis and Brainard streets is the site chosen by North Central College trustees for the planned $60 million science center to be built in the next three years. A parking lot at Brainard and Van Buren will remain in place, but several homes owned by the college on the east end of the block are targeted for demolition to make room for the 125,000-square-foot building. |  Susan Frick Carlman~Sun-Times Media
The area south of Van Buren Avenue between Loomis and Brainard streets is the site chosen by North Central College trustees for the planned $60 million science center to be built in the next three years. A parking lot at Brainard and Van Buren will remain in place, but several homes owned by the college on the east end of the block are targeted for demolition to make room for the 125,000-square-foot building. | Susan Frick Carlman~Sun-Times Media

North Central College will be moving ahead with its plans to construct the largest classroom building yet on its downtown Naperville campus.

City Council members this week reversed the Historic Preservation Commission’s refusal to permit the college to raze six buildings, including five historic homes, to make way for a 125,000-square-foot science center southwest of Van Buren Avenue and Loomis Street.

The council ruled 7-1 in favor of the college’s appeal of the commission’s denial of the necessary certificates of appropriateness allowing the demolitions. Councilwoman Judy Brodhead, a North Central faculty member, recused herself from the vote. Councilman Joe McElroy cast the only vote against tearing down the houses, saying he agreed with nearby homeowners’ assertion that the building would be harmful to the neighborhood.

Preservation Commission members identified several concerns that led to their decision, which also had just one dissenter. The 47-foot height of the building’s roof line, and the 62-foot peak of its mechanical screening on the rooftop, were troubling to the commissioners. Some of them also said the college’s master plan was misleading because it did not clearly show the neighborhood site as the potential location for the long-planned science center.

The commission additionally opined that the character of the east side historic district would be compromised by the presence of the structure. Commissioners cited the concerns of neighbors, many of whom otherwise spoke highly of North Central, as another significant factor in their vote.

Several of the neighbors weighed in on the project, some urging the council to uphold the preservation group’s decision.

“There’s no doubt the structure is too large and too close — less than 120 feet — to the neighboring homes,” said Denise Nigro, who lives on South Loomis Street and pointed out that there are other sites where the structure could be built.

Several of the opponents stressed that they understand the college needs the additional academic space to remain competitive in the science, math, engineering and technology disciplines. They just don’t want the center to be built where it’s planned.

“I do think that there’s other places on campus that could be used for a really tall thing,” said Marybeth Box, a longtime resident on Center Street who said she has been working in technology for 35 years.

Tom Ryan, an Historic Preservation Commission member and architect, agreed that the structure’s scale is excessive. He implored the council to back the commission’s ruling to underscore the point that “process matters,” and dismissed the argument that North Central needs to add the center’s square footage to remain academically relevant.

“It’s going to be a massive building,” Ryan said. “Massive.”

Some of the target property’s neighbors urged approval of the teardowns, however. North Central chemistry professor Paul Brandt, who lives on Sleight Street, said the project’s architect incorporated the neighbors’ input in the design. He noted that numerous historic structures in the area already have been leveled by churches, developers and others to make room for new construction.

“I don’t understand how my neighbors would expect the college would not be able to do the same thing,” Brandt said, adding that a mix of building styles is appropriate for the area. “It fits in the neighborhood, because the neighborhood contains a college campus.”

Some council members supported the appeal reluctantly, noting that the proposal called for no variances and adheres to the parameters of the college/university zoning district in which the campus sits.

“I have no other choice but to support the college, even though the Historic Preservation Commission was right in their decision,” Councilman Doug Krause said.

Council member Grant Wehrli echoed the sentiment.

“If they’re following all the rules, how do we tell them they can’t do it?” Wehrli said.

North Central President Troy Hammond told the council other locations on campus were considered for the science center but ruled out for various reasons. He said building the college’s science program was among his primary goals when he took his position last January.

Afterward, Hammond said he was pleased to have the science center, “absolutely a linchpin for our moving forward as a college,” approved.

“I think this is a really important moment in time for North Central College,” he said.

He added that there were limitations to the college’s ability to engage with the neighbors at times during the planning, because specific processes had to be observed as the college presented its case to the Preservation Commission. Now, he said, those conversations can resume.

“We have ideas. We haven’t stopped thinking about tweaks to the science center,” Hammond said, though he acknowledged not all of the opponents’ concerns can be accommodated. “We look forward to engaging the neighborhood on those things.”

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