As news of Dominican University’s Priory Campus sale gains momentum, two River Forest village trustees are questioning whether the site’s current zoning has hindered the village from attracting other potential buyers and are calling for the board to reconsider a past decision.
The property, a 7.6-acre parcel owned by Dominican University, is zoned for non-taxable public and recreational uses. In 2019, the village board unanimously voted to follow the Plan Commission’s recommendation and preserve Priory’s green space and historic buildings, an effort now part of the village’s comprehensive plan.
But trustees Kathleen Brennan and Erika Bachner said that keeping the campus’ current zoning could keep other buyers from coming forward and limit future possible uses for the land.
“I’m fearful that if we don’t act quickly to review it, it’s too late,” Brennan said during the Aug. 9 village board meeting. She suggested to the board that the Economic Development Commission look into the zoning for Priory this time around and reassess the property. Brennan said the commission is tasked with identifying underused lots, sussing out the sites’ best uses and advising the board on the economic impact of potential developments – all of which “fall squarely” into this situation.
Brennan also pointed out that while the village’s comprehensive plan helps the board make informed decisions, it also talks about making “creative” decisions, and with Priory Campus up for sale, now is the time to do so.
Village President Cathy Adduci disagreed. Adduci said she did not believe the commission was the right fit because plan commissioners are responsible for studying land use and zoning. She also believed that Priory’s zoning, as it stands, has no bearing on developers’ interests in the property.
In a follow-up interview with Wednesday Journal, Adduci said just because Priory has been zoned for non-taxable public and recreational uses, it does not bar commercial or housing developers from putting their names in the ring.
“If a [commercial] developer was interested in that land, and Dominican wanted to sell it to that developer, and there’s a majority of the board that wanted to accept that development, it could get done,” Adduci said.
At this point, Oak Park and River Forest High School and Fenwick High School have publicly announced they have submitted letters of intent to purchase Priory Campus from the university.
While OPRF has yet to disclose what it would use the campus for, Fenwick has shared that the lot could provide them additional space for administrative or athletic offices, spiritual retreats or music and arts programs.
Adduci, who serves on the board of the private Dominican run Fenwick High School, said she would resign from her position at the school immediately, if Fenwick is selected as the buyer.
“It would be the most practical and astute thing to do,” she said.
Karin Sullivan, a spokesperson for OPRF, said she has no updates or information to share since the letter was sent to representatives at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a real estate company hired by the university as its commercial broker. Fenwick spokesperson Scott Hardesty and JLL managing director Tom Kirschbraun could not be immediately reached for comment. In a previous report by the Journal, Kirschbraun had declined to comment on the number and names of other entities that submitted letters of intent.
‘We’re going to have the ultimate say’
During the Aug. 9 meeting, Adduci said she did not believe the village was losing out on any opportunities by keeping Priory Campus’ current zoning. She also remained open to further discussing the zoning, if she received a consensus from the trustees.
“There wasn’t consensus,” Adduci said in an interview after the meeting. “Two isn’t a majority.”
At the meeting, Adduci stood firm in her stance and explained why Priory’s current zoning has gone unchanged.
“I don’t think we should rush to change our comprehensive plan that we spent years talking about with a multitude of public meetings immediately,” she said. “I think we let our land use zoning stand for a bit and make a determination if we want to later on.”
Adduci said the comprehensive plan, which seeks to maintain the Priory property as open space, is a guide for the village’s future and represents what the board and residents want. Moving away from the plan and revising the zoning before other developers approach the board is a “knee-jerk reaction,” Adduci said.
“There’s a plan development process that we can look at” to review the zoning – if developers are interested, she said.
Trustee Bob O’Connell echoed Adduci’s sentiments.
“[The university] had a deadline of when they wanted letters of intent,” O’Connell said. “Nobody impacted anybody’s ability to go in there.”
“We have a piece of property that has zoning on it right now,” he continued. “Nobody has come to us and said, ‘I want to change this zoning.’ If somebody did that, I’d be totally on board with you guys and say, ‘We got something to talk about here.’ But nobody has done that.”
Brennan and Bachner, however, argued that by not bringing the Priory zoning to the table for another discussion, the board closed the doors on possible sources for tax revenues and other potential buyers of the land.
“It’s crystal clear that the message to any potential developer is that the village will not entertain rezoning,” Brennan said. “The message has already been given to the seller that the village won’t entertain rezoning.”
In a landlocked community like River Forest, the Priory property is a unique, rare opportunity, Brennan and Bachner said. This could have been the village’s chance to seize an opportunity and look to Priory Campus as potential tax revenue, said Bachner.
“The green space that’s there is not the ‘green space’ that most River Forest residents understand and use,” Bachner said. “It’s not the fields that our kids play on or the park. It is a building and a parking lot and a little bit of land around that. It’s off of Harlem Avenue, which is huge. It’s a great opportunity for traffic, if you’re looking for people to come to some sort of restaurants, commercial retail.”
Bachner clarified that’s just an idea, but “we haven’t done anything in the village to investigate what could be our options for this if we think creatively.”
For Brennan, she said she wasn’t necessarily interested in rezoning Priory: She just wanted to hold another conversation and see what could come from it.
“I think it’s important that we have the conversation and that we have the correct commissions doing the research about the opportunities here and for the village and for its residents,” she said.
But O’Connell thought otherwise.
“I think for us to get in the middle of letters of intent between a buyer and a seller is a bad place for us to be,” he said. “We’re going to have the ultimate say at the end of the day as to what goes on with the property.”