Landmark application for old Nichols next on Naperville docket

As talk continues to swirl in Naperville about what should happen with the 119-year-old building that used to house the city's first library, the order of discussion about the building from a governmental perspective has changed.

The city's historic preservation commission now is expected to be the next public body to consider a request related to the old Nichols Library's future, during a meeting set for Aug. 22, instead of the planning and zoning commission.

That means the first topic up for discussion is whether the structure should be designated a local landmark - not whether a developer should be granted permission under the zoning code to build shops, restaurants, offices and condos on the site.

The request to change the order of consideration came from Paul Mitchell, an attorney for Great Central Properties III. LLC., which had petitioned the city for the zoning variances.

It came after city council member Becky Anderson raised concerns about a potential bias that could emerge in weighing the local landmark request, which was filed by her son Charlie Wilkins and preservationist Barb Hower, if zoning changes were evaluated first.

Mitchell's letter said those involved with plans to develop the former library at 110 S. Washington St. "have respect for the process and want to be fair."

That's why the group, which includes property owner Dwight Avram of Naperville-based Avram Builders, says "both the petitioner and the property owner should be heard before the historic preservation commission before we go forward."

Meanwhile Naperville leaders and residents on both sides of the preservation coin continue staking out their perspectives.

Preservationists with Save Old Nichols, the group behind the landmark application that was filed June 5, are planning an informational preservation meeting for 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, at the current Nichols Library, 200 W. Jefferson Ave. Save Old Nichols member Becky Simon said the group is developing ideas by which saving the historic building could help the local economy.

Questions about the economics of saving the structure, so far, have gone unanswered. But Mayor Steve Chirico keeps raising them.

"I think most people would like to preserve it if funding wasn't an obstacle," he said. "My question is, where is the funding coming from?"

Chirico said he thinks the city made a mistake in the 1990s in selling the building to Truth Lutheran Church, which sold it early this year to Avram. He wishes the city would have maintained more control over the structure after it stopped being used as a library in 1986.

"The problem is now it is private property and we have to respect that," Chirico said.

If the building is granted local landmark status, it would be protected by additional city oversight, meaning any proposed changes, construction or demolition that would be visible from the street must be reviewed by staff members and/or the historic preservation commission.

Without landmark status, the building's Washington Street facade is protected by a covenant that says it must be preserved. Two designs of Avram's plans for the site both incorporate the facade into the new development - one at the north end, to match where the structure sits now, and another in the middle as a focal point.

"It's a pretty building," Chirico said. "To incorporate that in some way into the design of a new building, I think, is creative. If that's what it takes to make it a useful and productive part of our community again, I think that's great."

But he also said he's open to other options besides Avram's ideas for the site.

No exterior features of the building can be changed while the landmark application is pending.

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Naperville's first public library opened in 1898 at 110 S. Washington St., built with a $10,000 donation from Naperville teacher, author and businessman James Lawrence Nichols. The structure, now 119 years old, is the subject of a local landmark status application that will be evaluated Aug. 22 and the focus of a redevelopment proposal. Courtesy of Naperville Public Library
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