NIU’s Meddling in City Business: University Village

You may recall that Security Properties, a real estate investment and development company in Seattle, fought hard for much of last year to get approval for zoning changes for DeKalb’s University Village apartment complex. Security wanted to buy and rehabilitate UV, but first had to meet its government lenders’ conditions, and those requirements included action by our city council.

The company actually arrived in DeKalb much earlier, and one of its tactics in 2014 was to approach Bill Nicklas, at the time a Northern Illinois University VP, to ask him to send a letter of support to City of DeKalb. Some of this conversation played out over email. Here’s a highlight:

Given DeKalb’s code requirements regarding legal nonconforming uses, our permanent lender (HUD) and allocating agency directing low income housing tax credits and trust funds to the project (Illinois Housing Development Authority) are not willing to consider applications for funding with zoning as-is. As a result, we will be making an application to DeKalb for a Planned Development that would allow the site to exist in its’ [sic] current state as a conforming use.

Given your background with the city, I thought it would be worthwhile to get your thoughts on this process and how we can best navigate the proposal to a successful ending. Also, we would very much appreciate a letter from you supporting the transaction that we can include with our submission. I’m happy to forward a draft support letter if that is helpful.

So, a private developer is asking for help from a unit of state government in greasing the wheels on a deal with local government. Think about that.

I don’t know if anyone from NIU ever actually sent a letter to City of DeKalb. On one level it doesn’t really matter, because it’s the thought that counts; NIU administrators appeared to treat it as standard operating procedure, which is pretty striking in itself. However, emails also indicate that NIU found someone to try to talk to HUD on Security’s behalf, and sent an employee to get UV’s residents on board with the sale and redevelopment proposal. Even if nobody sent a letter, instances of actual meddling did occur.

Why would NIU expend resources to assist some private random firm out of Washington State? Maybe because it’s not so random. Take a look at this summary of a development project in Bellevue, Washington. The residential developer is Security Properties, and the master planner is architecture firm NBBJ. Note, also, the companies’ memberships on a panel of the Urban Land Institute. Ron Walters, former employee of NIU brought in by President Doug Baker, was once a principal of NBBJ. Jacob Simons, former consultant to NIU for the Baker administration, works at NBBJ. Baker himself lived in the Northwest for many years before accepting his current post. As the rampant cronyism of the Baker administration at NIU is already well documented, the math here suggests it was no coincidence that the Seattle company showed up in DeKalb.

Connections aside, however, the main problem is NIU’s use of employees’ time to meddle in City of DeKalb affairs to help enrich a third party. This is clearly despicable from the standpoint of public morality. We should question its legality as well.