Debate mars Palmer renovation

By Greg Rivara

NIU is trying to squelch talk that it could have built a new broadcast center for the same price or less than the $1 million-plus needed to remodel the Palmer Music Building.

Tom Montiegel, NIU vice president of development and alumni relations, said talk has continually plagued the Palmer Music Building’s conversion into the NIU Broadcast Center.

Montiegel said NIU bought the building for the best possible price and it is structurally sound. He offered an open invitation for anyone to inspect the property if doubts remain.

“If they can see any flood marks on that building, I’ll give them the building,” Montiegel said.

NIU Foundation member Ron Klein said the foundation should not have bought the building in the first place. Klein, an attorney, is handling the property’s transfer from the foundation to NIU at no charge. The foundation was the instrument through which NIU got the building.

“I didn’t think it was a good deal,” Klein said. The $375,000 the foundation paid in 1986 was too high for a building with structural faults that had been vacant for five years and was about to be auctioned off. “There were few interested buyers while vacant,” he added.

Last October, the Board of Regents contracted to buy the property on NIU’s behalf from the foundation for $650,000. The foundation owns the building until NIU takes ownership in 1999.

Montiegel said the board put a cap of $650,000 on the project at its December 1988 meeting. The money will go toward the building’s renovations.

However, remodeling bids to the 15,000-square-foot building exceeded the cap by about $180,000. Montiegel said NIU will request the board raise the amount to $860,000, including a $30,000 buffer for contigency costs.

Montiegel said NIU expects no opposition to raising the cap because additional funds will come from WNIU-FM radio, which will be the building’s main occupant. NIU is providing $400,000 for the project, with WNIU paying the rest of the bill.

The original purchase price, plus remodeling costs, architect fees and furnishing costs could push the project’s total bill to at least $1.3 million.

Furnishing the building will be done “as we can afford it,” said Mike Lazar, WNIU general manager. WNIU plans to seek major donations from business corporations and operation grants to offset the price.

The building, located on five acres of land alongside the Kishwaukee River at 801 N. First St., is slated as the new home of WNIU, student-run radio station WKDI-FM, auxiliary offices and studios for the Northern Illinois Radio Information Service and NIU’s reading service for the blind.

Questions also arose about the building’s financing. The building is owned by the First National Bank in DeKalb, 141 W. Lincoln Hwy., after the previous owner defaulted on the bank mortgage.

Although bank chairman John Castle is the foundation’s treasurer, Richard Ubl, the foundation’s executive director, said the relationship had no effect on the deal.

“John’s relationship didn’t come up to my knowledge. That’s the first time I’ve heard of that one,” Ubl said. Castle abstain from voting when the foundation voted to buy the building.

Klein said all of the foundation members knew Castle held high positions in both organizations, and said, “I don’t have any comment on that” when asked about a conflict of interest.

Castle said he “made no effort to speak to the subject or to persuade or dissuade members on the matter.”

“Why was it a conflict of interest?” Castle asked. “There would have to be some monetary gain toward me or the bank” if a conflict of interest existed, he said.

The bank was “not holding out for a price” and sold the building for “no more than” its appraised value, Castle said.

Certified Commercial Broker Steve Milner said “there are two schools of thought” held by people for and against the deal.

Supporters maintain the deal guaranteed access to NIU while allowing for future considerations, including parking. Opponents believe the building’s price was too high, thus having a snowball effect and making the project’s cost too high.

Milner said the one true test of a land’s value is selling it at auction. Although Milner said he believes the building’s price would be less than $375,000, an outside buyer would have a specific use for the building because it was vacant for so long.

Construction and land costs for a new building would be more than $375,000, Milner said. “If you have a specific need…then it starts to look like a pretty decent deal,” he said.

The primary structural concerns surrounding the building rest with flooding, roofing and foundation problems.

The building, as well as “half of of the university,” rest on the Kishwaukee River flood plain, Montiegel said. “As long as the (two) sump pumps are functioning properly,” there is not a problem, he said.

A waterproof membrane will cover the foundation because “the building is very susceptible to ground water,” said Gasper Sciacca, the project’s chief architect from Larson and Darby Inc., Rockford.

The building’s north foundation wall is caving in and will be reinforced at a cost of $12,000. A slightly pitched roof to ease water drainage will replace the original flat roof. “The building is in very poor condition,” Sciacca said.

One architect working on the project said when renovating a building designed for a retail store into a broadcast studio, special requirements are needed to quiet equipment sounds and vibrations. He declined to comment if renovating a retail store into a broadcast studio is difficult because of the vast differences in their functions, saying only, “We interpret what the owner requires.”

Sciacca said the firm’s responsibility is to create an “adaptive re-use of the building.” The design was aided by large open areas that made it easy to divide into work stations. “It really fit together quite well,” he said.

Lazar said although WNIU’s programming is not geared toward a college market, the new facilities will improve the quality and professionalism of WKDI-FM, as well as WNIU’s programming. “We will go from having one of the worst broadcasting facilities in the country to one of the best,” he said.

A professional recording studio at WNIU also can be used by NIU music students.

Montiegel said a new building equipped to hold sensitive electronic equipment needed by the radio stations could not have been built for the same price. He added if NIU was not sure the equipment would be safe because of structural defects, it would not have entered the deal.

The foundation purchased the two-story building primarily to ensure added future access to the east NIU campus. Montiegel said the possibility of a land speculator buying the property and “sitting on it” for a higher purchasing price from NIU weighed into the decision to buy the building and property in 1986.

Ubl said an agreement with the DeKalb Bank, from which the foundation borrowed the money needed for the original purchase, enabled the foundation to close the building’s mortgage and replace it with $200,000 in collateral through certificates of deposit. Closing the mortgage was necessary because NIU cannot obtain a building with a mortgage, he said.

No plans have been made for Kishwaukee Hall, the present home of WNIU and WKDI.