Northeastern Illinois University clashes with neighboring businesses over land

Friday, May 23, 2014
NEIU clashes with neighboring businesses over land
Chicago's Northeastern Illinois University wants something it does not currently have: student housing. And its sights are set on a nearby block of businesses.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It is a classic melting pot neighborhood in Chicago where immigrants have launched their dreams, but now those business owners are headed toward a land fight with a neighboring university that has dreams of its own.

Chicago's Northeastern Illinois University wants something it does not currently have: student housing. And its sights are set on a nearby block of businesses whose owners say "forget it". But a declaration of "no sale" doesn't end this, for the university holds the power of eminent domain.

Bi Jiang Lin is busy serving diners at the Hunan Wok, the restaurant she and her husband have operated for the better part of two decades. Next door, Arif Patel is working the convenient store he's signed a lease to run. A couple doors down, Aboud Alsawi is joined by guests at his hookah lounge.

Kimball and Bryn Mawr is a melting pot in, as the Mayor often says, the most American of American cities. Down the street is Northeastern Illinois University, which is pursuing a plan it calls its "Decade of Dreams". It would remove a full block of business on both sides of Bryn Mawr to make way for mixed use retail and student housing that the university says it needs for growth.

"Well, originally when Northeastern first came to us, we said flat out we're not interested in selling," said John Boudouvas.

Boudouvas' parents are Greek immigrants who for nearly 35 years ran this corner diner, their retirement nest egg. Alsawi's hookah location has a grandfathered license.

"Now if I leave outta here, I'm not gonna be able to open another business in Chicago because I'm not gonna find a free-standing building nowhere," said Alsawi.

"I'm stuck. I have loan to run this business," said Patel.

The business owners say they've invested blood, sweat, and tears and simply don't want to sell. However, they may have no choice because of eminent domain.

"Cause they flat out said, 'If you don't really sell to us, we're just gonna take it,' and my reply was 'How is this classified as eminent domain?'" said Boudouvas.

As a government-run university, Northeastern has the power to take property through eminent domain-- private property, condemned and purchased for public use. The university declined Eyewitness News' invitation to talk on camera but released a statement that says in part that it "...hopes it can acquire the properties without exercising its statutory power of eminent domain, and has not settled on a date to initiate such a proceeding."

"The university already owns a piece of land that's huge enough to build whatever they want to build on it," said Emmanuel Pathieu, business owner.

In fact, Northeastern's plan does call for new mixed-use and student housing to be built on a portion of what is now a university athletic field. The business owners say, "Do that first. Not us." Fair market value and relocation expenses, they argue, can't compensate for what took years to build.

"I really like it here. It's special for my children, they all grew up here. Restaurant remodeling cost a lot. (How would you pay for that?) I can't afford that much. That's made me so worried and stressed," said Jiang Lin.

A university spokesman says the reason Northeastern wants to move first on the off-campus properties is for the economic development of the neighborhood. A spokesman said: "Revitalization of the Bryn Mawr area would be beneficial to all residents, including our students."

Some of the business owners clearly don't see it that way. One of them, Emmanuel Pathieu, who is related to our ABC7 colleague Diane Pathieu, says he is intent on fighting and so are the others.

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