The Benedictine University Springfield campus will soon go on the real estate market as one piece of property, rather than divided into smaller lots for sale, and the school is committed to maintaining all of the campus building and grounds until the whole parcel is sold.
“We will maintain the campus until it sells, however long that takes,” said Benedictine Springfield Campus Director Janet Kirby. “That includes security and the maintenance of the grounds.”
Benedictine announced last month it will vacate the campus at 1500 N. Fifth St. in favor of having classes at educational partner institutions starting at the end of the spring semester. The school has hired the global commercial real estate firm of Jones Lang LaSalle to sell the property. The campus and its appraisal will be available for buyers to see within 30 days at http://www.us.jll.com.
It’s unusual to sell a 25-acre piece of property with 11 buildings as one parcel, but Kirby said Benedictine University President Michael Brophy wants to try to sell it that way.
“President Brophy has said that campuses like this do not come onto the market frequently, and there is specific interest in a whole college campus over the course of time,” Kirby said. “So it made sense to him to list it as a single entity.”
Kirby said the Dockson Plaza on the east side of campus has already been sold to Fifth Street Renaissance to develop homeless veterans services, although that sale has been under discussion for several years. The school sold the Eighth Street Gym two years ago, and it has been transformed into a sports complex with adjacent ball fields.
Being included in the new Peoria Road Tax Increment Financing District means there may be additional incentives for someone interested in buying the campus, said Kirby, who added she has had several requests by interested parties to see the property.
The heat has been turned off in the campus buildings that are not being used, they are patrolled daily by security staff, and the school does patchwork maintenance and repair work when necessary, Kirby said.
Probably not a quick sale
The university and area residents hope the campus sale won’t take too long, but experts caution about being overly optimistic regarding the time frame.
“It will probably not sell quickly. The question is, will it take a long time, or a really long time?” said Sam Nichols, a Springfield commercial real estate broker and developer. “The time frame has to do with, is there a buyer in the market who would take the whole thing, and how motivated the university is to sell?”
Nichols, who has not appraised the property but said it’s in a “fair location with beautiful grounds,” said its ultimate marketability may largely be determined by Benedictine’s willingness to eventually divide the campus into smaller parcels for sale. The campus also includes a number of historic buildings, several of which have not been used for years, and that also may be a factor in attracting potential buyers.
“If they sell it in parcels, I believe they would be able to sell some parcels sooner and other parcels much, much later, and for that property to be fully absorbed, it would likely take a full generation,” Nichols said. “If a developer bought the whole thing and then subdivided it and sold it off in parcels, from the day they closed on it until the day they were done with it, it would probably take 15 to 20 years.”
“If they try to sell it as a single piece, and the price is good enough that someone would be willing to speculate on it, and I’m talking about a bargain basement price, it could take three to five years to get rid of it,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the presence of historic buildings on the campus may be an incentive for some developers to adaptively re-use the structures, while for others it may be a sales deterrent. The property also could go back on the tax rolls and may need to be rezoned once it is sold, either of which could involve a substantial cost for a buyer. Nichols said the Benedictine campus doesn’t lend itself well to industrial development or retail, but any potential buyer would need to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns when considering its end use.
Nichols also said Benedictine’s promise to keep staff in place to maintain the buildings until they sell is crucial.
“If those buildings become vacant and they’re not kept up, within five years a buyer would look at that property and say ‘it’s land value only, minus the cost of demolition,’” Nichols said. “And demolition could be more than the land is worth. So that is a very wise move on Benedictine’s part.”
Keeping neighbors involved
Springfield Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor, whose ward includes Benedictine, has received assurances area residents will be fully involved in the campus sale process.
“The Benedictine president has assured me that there will be a community engagement process on this disinvestment from the area,” Proctor said. “I did a Facebook post recently to start the engagement process and get some feedback from residents. So we’ll look out for a community meeting and hope we have a good turnout.”
“We want this to be a good fit for the neighborhood. We don’t want somebody coming in and putting video gaming parlors there or tearing down buildings,” Proctor said. “Half of that campus has been vacant for a number of years, and that’s not good for the neighborhood, but it’s something the residents have been used to. I don’t think it will be a drastic change if there is a short period from the college leaving and getting it sold.”
The Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association also is keeping a close eye on the situation, according to Suzie Weissberg, the association’s urban planning director.
“The Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association has been concerned for some time about the future of the Benedictine property,” Weissberg said. “We are hopeful that a use will be found that benefits the current owner, any future owner, the city and the Lincoln Park neighborhood.”
The Benedictine Springfield campus has several historic buildings, including two that date from the late 1860s when Ursuline Academy was established on the property. But only one of the buildings, the 1869 Brinkerhoff House, has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has a “demolition delay” as a Springfield landmark, according to local historic preservation advocate Jerry Jacobson of Save Old Springfield.
“The other buildings have virtually no protection at all and obviously are a matter of concern to preservationists,” Jacobson said. “Ever since Ursuline Academy was sold to Benedictine and closed down, preservationists in Springfield have had considerable concern about the fate of the historic buildings on the campus.”
“During the transition period when the buildings are up for sale but are no longer used by Benedictine, I am very pleased that the university administration has seen fit to provide maintenance for the buildings,” Jacobson said.
Groups such as the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln have modest potential grants available for restoring and re-using historic properties, but President and CEO John Stremsterfer said no one has yet approached the organization concerning the Benedictine campus.
“Through our grant program we are always very interested in what’s going to happen to historic properties,” Stremsterfer said. “We have a committee structure that we would go through for something like the Benedictine property, but not knowing who it might be or what the proposal might be, it would be premature to have an opinion on that.”
All local classes through Benedictine’s Springfield campus will be taught at other community sites after the conclusion of the spring semester. The move will mean the loss of a still undetermined number of jobs among the 20-person, full-time workforce there, according to an earlier announcement by the university. The campus sale doesn’t affect adjunct faculty who will continue to work for Benedictine in a different location.
Instead of a central campus, students will take classes in partner institutions in Benedictine Springfield’s service area. Nursing students, for instance, will continue taking classes at Memorial Health Systems locations. Other existing partner locations include Lincoln Land Community College in Litchfield and Richland Community College in Decatur. Kirby said talks are underway for a partner location in Jacksonville, possibly at the LLCC facility there or at Passavant Area Hospital.
A total of 148 students are enrolled at the Springfield campus with four new degree courses to be added by June, Kirby said. Benedictine staff will meet with the Springfield campus students through May to plan the transition to other existing area sites. After June 1, enrollment and administrative staff will be located at community sites to assist both prospective and enrolled students.
Kirby was among the 25 of Benedictine’s 100 employees who remained on staff following the announcement in 2014 that the university would end its undergraduate program for traditional students with primarily daytime classes and focus instead on non-traditional, or adult students who are served mainly with night classes.
Benedictine University’s main campus is in Lisle and the school has another campus in Mesa, Arizona.
Contact David Blanchette through the metro desk: 788-1401.
The history of the campus
Sarah Jones was a Springfield College in Illinois student when she prepared a draft landmark nomination for the Ursuline Academy campus in 2010. Benedictine University now owns the two city blocks in northern Springfield that was first the Ursuline and then the SCI campus.
The landmark nomination was not submitted because it was opposed by the Ursuline Sisters, according to Save Old Springfield’s Jerry Jacobson, but he shared a copy of the partially completed nomination with The State Journal-Register. Jones’ nomination includes some interesting information about the history of the 25-acre campus:
• The first group of Ursuline sisters to arrive in Springfield came in the summer of 1857 from South Carolina. Led by Mother Mary Joseph Wolfe, the sisters founded Ursuline Academy within 17 days of their arrival. It was an all-girls kindergarten through 12th- grade school that took in all boarders. The Academy operated in the Farnsworth House on the corner of Sixth and Mason streets for 10 years.
Mother Wolfe was a friend of Gen., and later President, U.S. Grant and his wife Julia and corresponded with the Grants during the Civil War. Illinois Gov. William H. Bissel sent his daughter to the academy and she was part of the first graduating class.
• In 1866 the sisters purchased six acres of property known as Major Allen’s Grove on the far north side of Springfield. They began work that year on the original academy and convent building which was dedicated in September 1867 and was then used to educate young people for 140 years.
• The Sacred Heart Chapel was completed in 1895 in the Romanesque architectural style. It was designed by Springfield’s first licensed architect, William H. Conway, a founding member of the Knights of Columbus and the designer of the Illinois State Fair main gate. A convent was built and attached in 1904. The chapel was remodeled in 1913 and again in 1966 to reflect the modifications to Mass from the Vatican II Council.
• The St. Ursula Hall Conservatory of Music, also designed by Conway, was opened in 1908. Vachel Lindsay performed in the hall in 1912 and presented the sisters with a copy of one of his books. The Von Trapp family of “Sound of Music” fame performed there in the late 1940s.
• The Brinkerhoff House, built in 1869, was the private residence of George M. Brinkerhoff until his death in 1928, when it was purchased by Springfield Junior College and used as its main building.