In early December, Philip Hale, Loyola University’s director of community relations, sat for two hours at the front of the Wilmette village hall and listened to residents condemn his school and its plans. The crowd asked only a few questions, and he refused to answer any of them.

In September, Loyola had announced it would sell the home of its education school, the 17-acre Mallinckrodt campus–which happens to be Wilmette’s largest piece of undeveloped, privately owned land. Classes at Mallinckrodt are held in a former convent on the eastern edge of the property. The rest of the land is a web of grass and trees threaded by a quarter-mile asphalt strip that locals use for jogging, biking, and leisurely walks. Loyola bought the parcel three years ago for $11.8 million; it could sell the land for double that.

The four-story, 180,000-square-foot Mallinckrodt building, designed by German architect Hermann Gaul in 1916, was built for the Sisters of Christian Charity, an order of nuns founded in Germany in the 19th century. It once housed more than 100 nuns. In 1918 they created Mallinckrodt College, a school designed to prepare young nuns for careers in education. Eventually it became an accredited four-year school open to laypeople, but dwindling enrollment led it to begin leasing space to Loyola in 1991. When the sisters sold the property in 1999 they kept nine acres and built a residence large enough to house the remaining nuns, of whom there are now six. One nun who asked to remain anonymous says the sisters were distressed about selling the property but were glad the new owner was Loyola: “We were happy that a religious community was taking it and a community that was dedicated to education, because that’s exactly what we were dedicated to.”

Hale opened the December meeting by telling the crowd that everyone would benefit if the sale went through quickly. It would help Loyola, he said, because the university was paying $100,000 a month in interest for Mallinckrodt and because it could move the education school to its new home at the university’s Near North campus during the summer, causing less disruption. It would help the village, he said, because the community could start working with the new owner to determine the property’s fate. “Loyola absolutely agrees it is the people of Wilmette who should decide the future use of the Mallinckrodt property,” he said. “It’s why we’re here tonight.”

What Hale didn’t say was that current zoning allows a buyer to raze the former convent and fill the entire 17 acres with dozens of single-family homes. The buyer would owe the community nothing, something many people in the room understood.

Some members of the audience asked Loyola to delay naming a bidder and give the village the opportunity to save one of the last open tracts in their suburb. Others asked Loyola to find a buyer who would preserve the massive Mallinckrodt building, preferably turning it into affordable housing for the elderly, something the village sorely lacks.

Gradually the words grew sharper. “There is a moral obligation Loyola has here,” said one man who identified himself as a graduate of two Jesuit schools. “It may not be in a contract, it may not be in our ordinances, but there is a moral obligation as to how this process is conducted.”

One woman, a Loyola graduate, pointed to the latest solicitation letter she’d received from the university. “They say Loyola’s tradition of excellence must be maintained, and they ask that I take a role in shaping the character and culture of the student body,” she said. “Loyola asks me most of all for my Loyola pride. Well, I have been proud–up to now.”

State representative Jeff Schoenberg took the microphone, insisting that “economic considerations should not pressure this community into accepting a proposal that it does not want to accept. I won’t stand for it.” Applause accompanied him back to his seat.

Later Hale was asked whether the way Loyola was conducting the sale contradicted the mission of its Jesuit code. He paused, then said, “Well, any action has a moral implication, and any inaction has a moral implication. We embrace that notion as a university.”

Selling assets is Loyola’s latest method of rescuing itself from growing financial problems; this year it’s $41 million over budget. It has already decreased the number of classes offered, increased the average class size, increased the number of graduate students teaching undergraduate classes, and cut staff and faculty. It has also generated extra dollars by throwing its doors open wider, welcoming its largest freshman class ever last fall–1,424 students, up from 889 the previous year. Next fall the school plans to admit even more.

Mallinckrodt is only the first property Loyola wants to unload to raise cash. Soon property near its main campus in Rogers Park will go on the block. Forty-ninth Ward alderman Joe Moore met with Loyola officials at the end of December and learned that the school would be selling apartment buildings in his ward as well as a vacant lot near the corner of Broadway and Granville. Hale says the school hasn’t yet sought bids for those parcels.

“When any major property owner begins to sell off some of their property,” says Moore, “there can be an impact on the community, so I’m happy that they are working closely with me to be sure it’s a positive impact rather than a negative impact. We’ve had a good working relationship, and they understand that, as the alderman, I represent the people in the community in which they’re located. Unlike Wilmette, where they are selling and leaving, they’ll still be in Rogers Park. Maintaining that relationship is important.”

Hale insists the school has tried to maintain a good relationship with Wilmette too. He says that before Loyola went looking for a developer, it offered the land to the village. Mike Earl, Wilmette’s village manager, says Loyola did indeed offer the land last September, but that village officials couldn’t see a good reason to buy it, especially given that Wilmette residents would have to foot the bill. He says he asked Loyola for time to find an alternate method of saving the land and perhaps the former convent.

But at the end of November, Loyola closed the bidding, and a few weeks later announced that it had chosen a developer, Edward R. James Partners, of Glenview. At the December community meeting at the village hall, Hale said Loyola wouldn’t pick a developer based solely on who offered the most money. He said the school would also consider timing and the experience of the developers. And James Partners, he said, had impressed Loyola on all counts. “They are a responsible and responsive buyer,” he says, “someone who would work with the village, would work with the park district, would really hear what the residents expressed in that town meeting. We are very proud of that selection.”

James Partners had originally planned to tear down the former convent and build 60 new homes. But in response to community concerns, it proposed a 5.82 acre park–which it would sell to the village for $5.5 million–surrounded on three sides by only 34 single-family homes. That plan would have spared the village a lot of congestion, but it still would have sacrificed the convent and much of the open space. And some residents argued that the park would be inviting only to the people in the homes around it. Nevertheless, many people were relieved, because other developers had envisioned jamming more than 300 units onto the 17 acres.

Earlier last fall Lali Watt, Andrea Anderson, and Nan Hoff had created Citizens Action League for Mallinckrodt. Watt–a 41-year-old mother of three, corporate financier, and volunteer with a battered-women’s advocacy group–became the group’s president, and CALM grew rapidly into a 200-member nonprofit organization with a $20,000 budget and a Web site.

The group quickly decided to work around rather than with Loyola, and after the university closed the bidding at the end of November they asked the Wilmette Park Board to put the matter before voters as a ballot referendum in the March 19 election. If the referendum passed, the park district would become the buyer and Loyola would be paid “fair market value” for the property, as determined in negotiations or by an arbitrator. If Loyola resisted, the park district could use its power of eminent domain to acquire the land.

The park district board told CALM to collect 6,000 signatures on a petition if it wanted a referendum on the ballot. Watt, Anderson, Hoff, and other volunteers spent much of December outside the Metra station, the post office, and the library, and on January 7 they presented the board with 5,333 signatures. The board unanimously agreed that that was good enough, and it called a meeting for one week later to work out the language of the referendum.

Hoping still to be able to develop the land, James Partners immediately proposed that the referendum state that the developer would be allowed to buy all 17 acres, then sell 9.71 to the park district for $13.7 million. On five acres it would build a mix of condominiums and town homes, around 70 units in all, and it would sell the remaining two acres to a local preschool. James Partners offered this plan based on a guarantee that the village would rezone the property so that condos and town homes could be built. The developer stipulated that if it didn’t like the details of the rezoning, the deal would be void and it would retain all 17 acres, where it could build as many homes as it chose.

Jerry James, president of James Partners, says he included the stipulation to ensure that he could make a profit, which he couldn’t if he were restricted to building houses on the five acres. But at a January 14 meeting of the park district board, community members argued that the stipulation was intended to sabotage the referendum. The commissioners agreed and unanimously rejected James’s compromise, thereby granting the public the opportunity to buy all 17 acres. The commissioners received a standing ovation.

“The reaction was very disappointing,” says James, who points out that under his proposal taxpayers would have had to come up with only $13.7 million instead of the cost of the whole parcel. “It should not be the private developer against the community. It should be the community working with the developer to fashion a win-win plan. You may not get there, but by golly, if each party accuses the other of subversive intent when they’re trying to make good-faith efforts, it will never get you past first base.”

“The community didn’t think that was a fair compromise, nor did the board,” says Terry Porter, director of the park district. “They felt there were too many unknowns that all worked on the James side of the equation. They just didn’t want to take a chance with that.”

CALM members and other activists are now working to get out the vote on the referendum, but there’s no guarantee it will pass. If the community wants the entire parcel for a park it will have to pay for it. The referendum as now worded would allow the park district to borrow up to $25 million to buy it, which could mean Wilmette residents would pay an extra $26.50 per $1,000 of property tax for the next 20 years, though Porter says the park district would try to cover some of the cost by selling the former convent to a developer who would rehab it.

But the $25 million figure has raised eyebrows. Last September estimates of the land’s value were about $1 million an acre, or $17 million for the entire property. How much James Partners offered is a highly guarded secret, but the developer’s offer to sell 9.71 acres to the village for $13.7 million would put the overall value of the land at $24 million. “The price is going up on this property like you’re sitting on the Kennedy in a taxi trying to go to O’Hare,” Schoenberg said at the January 14 meeting.

If the referendum fails, Wilmette won’t have much to say about the land’s fate. Both Porter and village manager Mike Earl say they wouldn’t oppose full-scale construction, because that’s what the current zoning allows. James Partners has said that if the referendum fails it will raze the former convent and build 38 single-family homes–and no park.

Many people wonder why Loyola couldn’t have been more helpful in working out a solution. “The way Loyola has behaved has baffled all of us,” says CALM’s Lali Watt. “I’m surprised from a religious perspective that they didn’t have enough morality to approach it differently. And I’m surprised from a public-relations perspective that they have bungled the way they’ve handled it so badly. Jeff Schoenberg is the head of the state appropriations committee–isn’t it dumb to alienate someone like that?”

“Our board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility,” says Loyola’s Philip Hale. “We’re a nonprofit charitable organization in Illinois, and as such our board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of the university.”

Watt responds, “None of us denies that Loyola has a right to sell what they want to sell. I just don’t understand why they have gone about it in a way that makes them enemies rather than friends.”

Even the nun who wanted to be anonymous says, “I’m disappointed in Loyola to some extent. But they have their reasons, and I respect that. We had hoped that it would be Loyola there forever and ever, but if it can’t be it can’t be. We just hope whatever ends up there will be friendly neighbors. We hope it’s something good for Wilmette and good for us to be next to.”

Nancy Canafax, the Wilmette village board president, remembers noting how many of the speakers at the December meeting with Hale were from Loyola or some other Jesuit school. “We told [Loyola], ‘That’s what you get for educating these articulate, moral people–they come back to you and hold you up to your own standards.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.