Showdown coming on future of Little Friends campus in Naperville
The choice for Naperville-based Little Friends is between prioritizing its property or its people, officials say.
The longtime service organization for those with autism or other disabilities has its primary property at 140 S. Wright St. -- a site it wants to sell to neighboring North Central College to maximize its value and help facilitate a move to a larger and more modern space in Warrenville, CEO Mike Briggs says.
Little Friends has its people there, too -- students in a large school for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities called Krejci Academy and a small school for teens with social or emotional disturbances called The Mansion High.
"It's a place of last resort for some kids," Briggs said.
The organization has been growing since its founding in 1965 and now serves roughly 800 people a year.
But the growth has been especially pronounced in recent years, Briggs said, as the prevalence of autism and its diagnosis among young people has increased. One child in 59 now is on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Sadly, we are in a growing industry," Briggs said.
But Little Friends isn't housed in buildings that can grow easily or practically, Briggs said.
With concrete walls, baseboard heat, no central air conditioning and no elevators for students in wheelchairs, the buildings dating from 1909 and 1945 no longer meet Little Friends' needs.
"It's not fancy, but we make what's here work," he said.
Despite facility constraints, Little Friends aims to expand and become the premier disability services provider of its kind in the state, Briggs said.
The organization recently invested in improved curriculum and technology and plans to move to Warrenville, at a cost of roughly $7 million to build out an existing facility on Diehl Road. Briggs estimates the cost of fixing the Wright Street campus to provide the same amenities planned in Warrenville would be roughly double, about $14 million to $16 million.
"We need to put our money into programs helping kids and adults." Briggs said.
That's why the agency has entered into a pending purchase agreement with North Central.
The college wants to use the land for a new health sciences building that would offer a graduate-level physician assistant program, President Troy Hammond said. The college previously owned the property from 1945 to 1989, using the main three buildings as dorms.
Complicating the sale is the zoning of the land. The residential designation is not consistent with the college and university designation North Central would need.
Also complicating the sale is the historic nature of the Craftsman-style mansion, which was built for Naperville furniture magnate Peter Kroehler.
Although Kroehler himself lived there only roughly a year, according to Naper Settlement's curators, many history buffs see value in retaining the house as a reminder of Kroehler's largesse as a local employer during the World War II era. But Hammond has said all buildings on the site would have to be razed for North Central to use it.
The next steps are procedural in sorting out Little Friends' facility needs, North Central's expansion plans, neighbors' fears about traffic and disruption, and preservationists' desires to keep the mansion.
Little Friends, as the owner of the property, plans to apply for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish all the buildings, which would come from the city's historic preservation commission.
The city council would need to approve a request to rezone the land, but a vote on doing so has been pushed back twice since early June. North Central plans to ask the city for another delay until Nov. 5. Spokesman Jeremy Borling said the college needs additional time to work toward an initial site plan.
Little Friends hopes the new land-use designation will be approved once a vote is called, bringing the organization one step closer to a school with improved wheelchair access, modern temperature control and 20,000 more square feet for staff members to help people with disabilities reach their potential.
"The work is amazing," Briggs said. "But imagine, 'What if.'"