Dominican University is exploring the sale of its 7-acre Priory Campus just off Division Street at Harlem Avenue. The River Forest university purchased the property in 2002 from the Dominican Friars religious order. At the time, it planned to use the campus to consolidate its growing graduate degree programs. Circumstances have changed and the property is now little used, said Donna Carroll, president of the university.
The Priory Campus is surrounded on four sides by athletic fields long leased by Fenwick High School from the Dominican Friars. The effect, said Carroll, is that the university portion of the 20-acre site is “like an egg on a pedestal.” Which makes selling the property potentially challenging.
Also limiting sales options is the clear position being taken by the village of River Forest that it does not want to rezone the site to get it onto the property tax rolls. The property is currently zoned for non-taxable public and recreational uses. Village President Cathy Adduci said Monday that is unlikely to change.
Speaking for her board, Adduci said, “We are not interested in turning it into residential or commercial uses. We appreciate the green space and believe [the Priory] is a significant building.”
Carroll, in a Monday interview, said that was the clearest statement she has heard from Adduci but said she was not surprised by the position. “The green space is beautiful,” said Carroll who noted the Priory building — constructed originally in 1924 and added on to in 1964 — is not registered as a historic building, “but we’re not looking to have it knocked down.”
Both the village and the university are taking the long view here. Adduci said the zoning on the property aligns fully with the village’s Comprehensive Plan which was updated in 2017. That plan focuses upgrades to commercial development on North Avenue, Lake Street and Madison Street.
“We are all wanting more green space,” she added.
Carroll said discussions about the future of the Priory Campus have long been underway and the university is not rushing any decisions. She said the recession of 2009 diminished demand for graduate course work. Now graduate enrollment is again on the rise, she said, but increasingly courses are taught online, making the Priory space unnecessary. Graduate programs have been shifted to the main campus west on Division Street. Carroll also said demand for on-campus student housing for undergrads is also declining, negating another longtime use of the Priory Campus. She acknowledged the Priory building needs significant investment for whatever its future use might be.
The university has hired Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm, to assess its options and to put a price tag on the property. Asked if the property was actively on the market, Carroll said the real estate firm “is describing it as a quiet offering, not an open sale.” She said the firm is having discussions with possible buyers or collaborators for the site. An initial appraisal of the site by Jones Lang LaSalle put an $8 million price tag on the property, she said. But the market will determine its value.
Carroll described four options for the university, its board and its incoming president who will arrive this summer as Carroll retires after 27 years: “We could mothball it. Essentially what we are doing now. Dominican could repurpose it. We could lease it. We could sell it. We’ve given ourselves permission to explore options.”
She noted there are always discussions between Dominican and Fenwick, and she would welcome Trinity High School into that conversation to see if there might be a collaborative concept among “the Dominican siblings that would make a comfortable transition and allowing the property to stay in the family.”
Adduci said it was unlikely the village government would consider buying the property. “Not at this time. I couldn’t see it,” she said. Asked if the River Forest Park District might consider it, she said the price would likely exceed the district’s bonding capacity but “it could be possible. It would be a nice park.”
Carroll said this is a long and open-ended process for Dominican. The university has consulted with neighbors, she said, and the discussions are part of the school’s strategic planning process and facility audit process.