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photo by Jim Slosiarek

cutline: Rebehah Duncan, right, other residents and city officials gather in the home of Neal and jeanne Pelz, 1728 College Ave., Wednesday night to discuss proposed DeKoven Center development plans. At left is Director of City Development, Thomas Wright.

Neighbors of the DeKoven Center told city officials Wednesday night that a developer's plan for the historic property would harm the quality of life on Racine's south side.

They opposed a plan to build apartments in the historic buildings that once housed Racine College. They said they want the DeKoven Foundation, Racine Montessori School, a pool and gym to remain on the site. And they questioned the need for an additional 300 apartments in the neighborhood.

Mayor Jim Smith, Director of City Development Thomas Wright and two aldermen were repeatedly told that the new owner of the property, Heartland Properties Inc., hasn't listened to their objections and ideas.

"They gave us lip service," said Rebekah Duncan. "Every idea that the (citizens' advisory) committee came up with, their answer was, "that's not economically viable."'

Area residents said the school, public grounds, recreational buildings and presence of the DeKoven Foundation's retreats, conferences and chapel contribute greatly to the neighborhood's unique flavor.

"We're talking about the quality of life that the DeKoven has brought to Racine," said Cynthia Georgeson. "We're talking about killing the spirit of this part of our community."

Not one of the more than 20 residents gathered in the home of Neal and Jeanne Pelz, 1728 College Ave., supported the development ideas offered by Heartland. They also asked Smith, Wright and aldermen Ray Matthews and Mary Kaprelian to help them put the brakes on the project.

They were given no such assurance by city officials, but Smith and Wright explained the process of seeking city approvals — needed to build apartments in the historic buildings or construct new housing.

"It certainly is not a done deal," Smith said. He told the residents that he had expected Heartland to be sensitive to the wishes of Historic District residents and was disappointed to hear the level of their concerns.

Smith said he would discuss their concerns with Heartland vice president Susan Hobart, who has headed the firm's DeKoven project.

Wright said city permits would not be issued for the work without thorough, expert reviews of the development firm's plans and studies. The city also requires public hearings and City Council approval for the proper licenses and zoning.

Wright told the residents that projects that attract sufficient opposition can be required to achieve a 75 percent vote of approval on the city council — which isn't always easily achieved.

He also expects the city to have some influence on the project because of Heartland's anticipated bid for financial assistance from the city.

Wright said the city won't officially get involved in the project until

Heartland presents its development plans for approval.

"The pencil will hit the paper when they do present an application to the city of Racine," Wright said.

Under its tentative plan, Heartland would ask the Montessori school to leave its home of 32 years at the end of the academic year. The gym and pool would be converted to apartments. New, multi-unit housing would be constructed elsewhere on the 25.9 acre site.

The DeKoven Foundation, an arm of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, could be forced to vacate its namesake location — unless a deal can be reached with Heartland on their continued use of Taylor Hall.

Hobart has said that the income from the residential units would be needed to restore, repair and preserve the DeKoven buildings. Total project cost estimates range as high as $30 million.

One part of the Heartland plan already is under construction. An addition to the older adult housing project, Lake Oaks at DeKoven, will double the size of the currently 85-unit building.

It was the original Lake Oaks building that led to Heartland's acquisition of the DeKoven property.

Heartland bought the property for $4 million last fall after Lake Oaks, which was planned and built by the the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, fell into foreclosure. The DeKoven property was part of the sale because it had been used as collateral for Lake Oaks.

Many of the residents at Wednesday night's meeting said they would particularly miss the presence of the pool and gym. They asked Smith and Wright if the city would consider purchasing the recreational facility.

Smith told the group that city taxpayers are continually being asked to carry a heavier burden.

"I would suggest a private fund drive," he said. "Then all of the residents of the city who want to participate can participate."

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