Naperville council approves townhouse plan for Little Friends site

  • The historic Kroehler mansion is the centerpiece of a plan approved Tuesday by the Naperville City Council to transform the Little Friends property into a 41-unit townhouse development.

    The historic Kroehler mansion is the centerpiece of a plan approved Tuesday by the Naperville City Council to transform the Little Friends property into a 41-unit townhouse development. Courtesy of Ram West Capital

  • The historic Kroehler mansion is at the center of a plan to transform the Little Friends campus in Naperville into a 41-unit townhouse development. The more than century-old house is expected to be upgraded and repurposed into two residential units on the Wright Street property.

    The historic Kroehler mansion is at the center of a plan to transform the Little Friends campus in Naperville into a 41-unit townhouse development. The more than century-old house is expected to be upgraded and repurposed into two residential units on the Wright Street property. Courtesy of Ram West Capital

 
 
Updated 10/21/2020 4:42 PM

A plan to redevelop the Little Friends property in Naperville has been tweaked and refined for months as developers searched for the sweet spot between an economically feasible residential project and the community's desires.

The 41-unit townhouse complex presented Tuesday is not what all city leaders envisioned for the Wright Street site, nor does it please all neighbors in the historic district. But in terms of their key requests, elected officials say it checks all boxes: rear-loaded garages, public open space, and the preservation -- and significant improvement -- of the historic Kroehler mansion.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That level of give and take won over skeptics on the city council, resulting in the unanimous approval of a conditional use, height and setback variances, and development plans for the Heritage Place project. The council also authorized a certificate of appropriateness for the townhouse and mansion facades, overturning a previous denial by the historic preservation commission.

"This has come a long way. I think the developer has really done a phenomenal job of finding that compromise," Councilman Paul Hinterlong said. "I was probably the biggest critic out of all of us on this, and I think we're there."

The approval lifts a "cloud of uncertainty" for Little Friends, allowing the nonprofit to finalize the sale of its legacy campus and relocate to a more suitable home in Warrenville, President and CEO Mike Briggs said. The disability services agency has been trying to sell the nearly 4-acre site for more than 18 months, a process drawn out by a community push to save the mansion.

While most property bidders wanted to raze the more than century-old house, contract purchaser Ram West Capital pledged to preserve it. The city council offered Little Friends a $450,000 incentive to make up the difference in the land sale price.

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Ram West's initial concept plan in May called for single-family houses and duplexes on the site, attorney Russ Whitaker said, but it lacked a vision for the mansion and was ultimately panned by the city council and neighbors.

Developers went back and "completely rethought our approach" before presenting a 47-unit townhouse plan in which the Kroehler house served as the focal point, he said.

The proposal was downsized in the following weeks to 45 units, then to 41 -- a density that no longer required a city code variance. Adjustments also were made to yard setbacks, landscaping, a rose garden, the parking configuration and two public parks to be donated to the park district.

"Through compromise and partnership, we will repurpose this unique block in the historic district and make it relevant for future generations," Whitaker said. "The city council provided a framework that made this creative reuse possible and serves as a model for how to bring the community together to balance preservation with responsible redevelopment."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Each version of the proposal has been met with criticism by neighbors and preservationists, many of whom reiterated Tuesday they don't believe the project fits with the character of the neighborhood.

"This massive and overly dense development is completely out of place in the historic district," resident Greg Remec said in written comments. "Keeping the Kroehler mansion is preferable, but not at the expense of having to accept the current proposal."

But the council also heard from several nearby residents who expressed support for the project and commended the development group's willingness to seek feedback and make adjustments accordingly.

Mayor Steve Chirico said he believes the plan will be a "great asset ... (and) a giant leap forward compared to what we're looking at today."

Whitaker said project leaders intend to provide frequent updates through the construction process, as requested by neighbors.

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