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NEIU is attracting a lot of eyes with the flashy new El Centro

And a lot of criticism for its other expansion plans

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If you've driven the Kennedy Expressway this year, chances are good that you've spotted Northeastern Illinois University's flashy new $27 million campus outpost, El Centro, perched above the east side of the highway at Kimball, just where the Kennedy takes a major bend. Even before the building got its gleaming fins, it was a striking sight, a big, boomerang-shaped whale of a structure looming over the traffic as if it had just landed from outer space.

Now that it's complete, it's a stunner, a color- and shape-shifter that—thanks to those bicolored fins—presents a rippling gold face to the highway if you're driving toward downtown and turns blue (blue and gold are NEIU's colors) if you're headed the other way. Working with a three-acre industrial site wedged between railroad tracks and the freeway, architect Juan Gabriel Moreno of the Chicago-based firm JGMA has created a futuristic glass castle of learning that embraces and exploits its king-of-the-road location. From the outside, it has far greater impact than its relatively modest size—three stories, 66,000 square feet—should generate. And the airy inside is just as striking, with sweeping, hypnotic views of multiple lanes of racing traffic from almost every hallway and room. I don't know what it'll do for classroom attention spans, but the effect is like a glass-capsule dive into the midst of a giant aquarium.

The building includes 17 classrooms (all shallow and wide, so no one is far from the front), a 40-station computer lab, a couple of beautifully equipped science labs, a top-floor lounge with skyline views and a patio, a large main-floor suite of administrative offices, and a library resource center that won't have any books except those that students request, which will come on loan from other campuses. Each classroom has twin video screens that with the use of an app will immediately display whatever a student wants to share from his or her phone. NEIU president Sharon Hahs has said that this building "literally" raises "the profile of our university," and both she and Moreno have noted more bluntly that it will function as a billboard for NEIU, getting in the face of the 400,000 cars that pass by every day.

But $27 million is a lot to pay for a billboard. Which raises a question: Why does NEIU, which financed the cost of the new El Centro by issuing bonds, need a knockout satellite just a three-mile jog down Kimball Avenue from its less-than-crowded main campus?

Part of the answer to that question can be found in Hahs's "Decade of Dreams" expansion plan for the university, which includes six different projects, among them a $73 million education building, currently in the design stage and funded by the state, and a yet-to-be-funded $90 million science building. The plan also calls for the addition of student housing: a set of dorms on nearby Bryn Mawr, and another on the campus itself, along Foster.

This is a fundamental change, because NEIU has traditionally been a commuter school. In this northwest-side location since 1961, and with an annual operating budget of $150 million, it provides relatively low-cost undergraduate and master's degree programs (undergraduate tuition with fees is now about $8,600 per year). Two years ago Newsweek named NEIU the sixth-best university "investment" in the nation and the best in Illinois, and U.S. News & World Report has cited it numerous times for its diversity. Its strengths have been its geographic accessibility, affordability, and flexibility for full- and part-time students, many of whom live with their families or are adults returning to school.

The concern among some faculty members I've talked with is that the president is out of touch with the school's historic mission, looking to attract a different demographic locally as well as students from out of state or out of the country. NEIU may be the only Illinois state university without student housing, they say, but so what? A resident campus has never been its niche.

El Centro began more than 40 years ago as an outreach effort to the Latino community, which now accounts for about a third of NEIU's 10,000-student enrollment. NEIU spokesperson Dana Navarro says El Centro's mission is "to serve our community in the community," and that the program had outgrown its previous space, which was just a few blocks away from the new location. Navarro says 1,500 students are taking classes at the new building. According to faculty members I've talked with, many of them are the same students who are taking classes on the main campus.

The new building came into being at warp speed as academic projects go, first proposed about three years ago in response to an expiring lease on a storefront El Centro had been renting in the same Avondale neighborhood. (NEIU also operates a second satellite campus, the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, in Bronzeville.) At last week's opening ceremony, held on a plaza in front of the building, credit for that largely went to Hahs, who was introduced by provost Richard Helldobler as a "visionary" and characterized as a "true leader" and "an engine of change" by a lineup of political dignitaries on hand to speak. Senator Dick Durbin invoked Abraham Lincoln; Congressman (and NEIU alumnus) Luis Gutierrez noted that the mentoring he got from one professor there is what set him on the path toWashington; and Alderman Rey Colon said he's very proud that the "mother ship" landed in his ward. Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought greetings from his mother, who earned two degrees at NEIU after she'd raised him. "This university and this building so much encapsulates the American dream," Emanuel said.

Despite the chilly intermittent rain, it had to be a rewarding moment for President Hahs, whose administration has been placed on the national American Association of University Professors censure list (for allegedly violating principles of academic freedom in a case of tenure denial), and who's wrestled with enrollment declines over the last four years that are resulting in tuition increases and course cancellations.

"They have 67 acres of land, and they're looking to take property from business owners and residents who've been here for years."—Gina Fong, who lives near the block that NEIU is trying to obtain through eminent domain

El Centro director Maria Luna-Duarte explained that the new facility will begin by offering degrees in social work, justice studies, computer science, and special education. Both she and architect Moreno mentioned that the classrooms include entire walls the students can write on, and both Moreno and Hahs emphasized what Hahs said is "our deepest belief"—that "our students deserve this." After a ribbon cutting, everyone picked up their soggy umbrellas and went inside for wine and cake and informal tours of the premises.

El Centro's not the most buzzed-about project in NEIU's current construction portfolio, however. That would be the "Decade of Dreams" plan for two mixed-use dormitory buildings—to be constructed and run by a private developer—on a one-block stretch of Bryn Mawr between Kimball and Bernard.

It turns out some property owners on that Bryn Mawr block don't want to sell. After they turned down an initial offer from the university, NEIU in August filed court papers initiating a process that would allow the university to take their land through eminent domain. A half dozen of the owners are fighting the process, and asking this question: Why doesn't NEIU begin its dormitory experiment with the buildings slated for its own land, instead of displacing long-term neighbors?

Businesses on the targeted block have signs in their windows imploring Alderman Margaret Laurino and Illinois state rep John D'Amico listen! no neiu eminent domain. Another sign asks students and faculty to prevail upon the university's board of trustees to withdraw the eminent domain lawsuits filed against the property owners. Working with neighborhood residents also opposed to the project, they've launched an online petition at Change.org, asking the university to give up the eminent domain push. So far, it's garnered more than 1,000 signatures. And they're making their case on a website that links to many of the relevant documents, neiulandgrab.com.

One thing critics point to is a housing study done by a consulting firm, Danter Company, for the university. The consultants give a thumbs-up to the student housing project, but their data include what opponents say are some obvious red flags. As assistant professor Marcos Feldman told the NEIU board of trustees last month, Danter found that only "between 3 and 9 percent of our students can afford the housing options" that the consultants were considering.

Which doesn't exactly sound like a tsunami of demand. Also, according to the consultants, demand for campus housing is always much greater among full-time students than among those who are part-time. At NEIU about half the student body is part-time.

So it looks to opponents like NEIU is forcing people out of their homes and businesses to build housing for a nearly nonexistent market. "A lot of the residents here are very upset with the lack of transparency on this issue," says Gina Fong, who lives nearby. "We asked them to withdraw the eminent domain lawsuit and build student housing dorms on their property first. They have 67 acres of land, and they're looking to take property from business owners and residents who've been here for years."

NEIU didn't respond when asked specifically about the push for off-campus dorms, but according to an August press release announcing the filing for eminent domain, student housing has been a priority for the school since its (prerecession) 2008 strategic plan, and is expected to "greatly enhance our ability to recruit and retain students." Northeastern also claims that it's acting for the good of the neighborhood: "The University believes that the addition of new students and businesses will enhance economic development along the Bryn Mawr corridor between the University and Kedzie Avenue, where more than 25 commercial storefronts currently are closed."

But, says Fong, that's not the case on the block Northeastern is trying to take over. "All of those businesses are thriving."

An informal group of faculty, students, and others who oppose the Bryn Mawr project plans to stage a protest on Thursday, October 9, at 8:30 AM outside Alumni Hall on the main campus, 5500 N. Saint Louis.

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