The Lake Forest Plan Commission took the next step to reunite the campuses of Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart and the former Barat College by recommending Wednesday night that the City Council grant a special use permit to limit the combined parcels to educational purposes.
When it meets Jan. 3, if the City Council follows the Plan Commission’s suggestion, it would extend Woodlands’ special use permit to use its existing grounds for educational purposes to cover the additional 23 acres of the former Barat property.
That City Council action would clear the way for the new owner, who has chosen to remain anonymous, to obtain the proper permits to demolish Old Main. This is one of its conditions before making the gift to Woodlands.
The recommendation did not come easily to representatives of Woodlands Academy, property owner Harris Bank and the prospective purchaser, who intends to acquire the former Barat campus at the northeast corner of Westleigh and Sheridan Roads.
In a 3-2 vote, Commissioners Mark Shaw and Jim Carris opposed the recommendation. Each expressed concern over the certainty of the transaction. The buyer was to have exercised an option to purchase the land Dec. 13 and close by Dec. 20. Commissioners Jeff Kuchman, Tim Newman and Chairman Jack Reisenberg voted yes. Commissioner Lloyd Culbertson was absent.
“What if we don’t approve this and the City Council goes ahead and passes it?” Carris asked. “Will it jeopardize the deal?”
Carris, who is in the real estate business, worries the buyer has no obligation to transfer the property to Woodlands after Old Main is demolished.
Community Development Director Cathy Czerniak and Deborah Haddad, an attorney representing both Woodlands and the purchaser, gave assurances this should not be a concern.
“One condition (of the special use permit) is before the demolition goes forward there will be an enforceable legal document requiring the transfer,” Haddad said.
If the City Council approves the special use permit, Woodlands will have one year to develop a master plan for the property that would require all appropriate approvals from the city.
Before approval of a master plan, Woodlands can make use of the Cooney Library on the Barat campus and the land for athletic fields with no permanent structures.
“This is a long-term plan in terms of generations, not months or years,” Woodlands Trustee Ralph Elwart said. “The children and grandchildren of the current students will encounter a very different world and we have to be prepared.”
Elwart did mention a possible return of Shakespeare on the Green, a popular summertime theater activity at Barat, and several members of the public who spoke liked that idea.
Shaw, Carris and Kuchman also had fears whether the purchaser would close by Dec. 20 if there was no certainty that the City Council would approve the recommendation Jan. 3.
“Most people would not craft a check under those circumstances,” Kuchman said.
Elwart and Haddad told the commissioners the purchaser was looking for encouragement from the action of the Plan Commission. Elwart did not know if the option was exercised Dec. 13 and Haddad had no comment.
“They’re looking for encouragement from your actions,” Hadad said.
After the meeting, Elwart was noncommittal. “All we know is it is going to the City Council,” he said.
Another concern of several commissioners and the public was the existing use of cellphone towers on the roof of Old Main. They were worried the interests of the Federal Communications Commission or the cellphone companies could create a stumbling block.
Czerniak assured everyone the cell tower issue would be resolved between all interested parties before demolition of Old Main.
Public testimony was split on the demolition of Old Main. Charlie Wimmer, a 1990 graduate of Barat, wants to see the building remain. He considers it a civic treasure akin to City Hall, the train station and Market Square.
“It will be a really ugly day in the history of this town if you let this go forward,” Wimmer said.
Bret Tucker, who has lived near the property since 1970, took a different view. “Old Main is a beautiful building but it has outlived its usefulness,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”