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updated: 2/16/2021 12:08 PM

Mundelein mayoral candidate calls Plaza Circle plans ‘a bust’

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A Mundelein mayoral candidate called the village's long-stalled plan to develop the land around village hall on Plaza Circle "a bust" Monday.

Tom Ouimet, now a member of the Mundelein High School District 120 board, questioned why no developers have stepped up to build something on the land, saying the vacancies are "a huge red flag."

Fellow mayoral candidates Robin Meier and Dawn Abernathy, both longtime trustees, also were concerned about the vacant lots around village hall. Mayor Steve Lentz, who's running for a third term, defended the village's efforts there.

The four candidates met with the Daily Herald over Zoom on Monday for a group endorsement interview. They fielded questions about Plaza Circle and other local issues.

Plaza Circle is village-owned land in the heart of the downtown area. It's south of Hawley Street and east of Seymour Avenue, just north of Mundelein's Metra station.

The only structure that's been built on Plaza Circle is village hall, which opened in 2014.

Four lots -- ranging from less than an acre to more than 3 acres -- are vacant. In all, they occupy more than 6.5 acres.

Shops, multifamily housing and public green space have been proposed there through the years, as was a performing arts center. But nothing has come to fruition.

"It's been sad to see that land just sitting there," said Ouimet, a District 120 board member since 2017. "It was a great start to put the village hall there, but I would say it's a bust."

Ouimet, who's also served on Mundelein's economic development commission, questioned why the Plaza Circle lots remain empty despite the economic prosperity of the six to eight years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession.

He also objected to the construction of low-income, multifamily housing nearby, saying that building -- called Fairhaven Crossing -- could be discouraging development in the downtown area.

"I think that's going to cause you some concern," he said. "I think they're going to be a little leery of that."

Conversely, the construction of a new commercial building on the nearby site of the former village hall at 440 E. Hawley St. represents "a little bit of hope there."

But if no tenants come into that building for two or three years, growth in the area will further be hampered, Ouimet said.

Abernathy, a trustee since 2013, said officials have tried to market the Plaza Circle properties to developers through the years. She said she wants to pitch the land to other developers again.

As for Ouimet's complaint about housing near Plaza Circle, Abernathy said officials have worked with other would-be developers to find locations for low-income housing developments in areas other than the downtown district.

Meier said she regrets an element of the deal between the village and the developer who helped build village hall that gave the company exclusive rights to the Plaza Circle property for several years.

"We really couldn't market that land during that time period," said Meier, who served as trustee from 2008 to 2015 and rejoined the board in 2017. "I think that was a major mistake, allowing them to tie that up."

When that deal ended, Meier said, a different developer gained exclusive rights to the lots.

Those agreements kept village officials from going out to the marketplace "as much as we would have been able to had we not gotten into these long-term agreements."

This is Meier's second bid for the mayor's chair. She unsuccessfully sought the post in 2013, losing to Lentz.

Lentz said continued residential development in the downtown area will boost the downtown economy and drive developer demand for the land in Plaza Circle.

"It's all about bringing in residential density," said Lentz, who narrowly won reelection in 2017.

Lentz revealed that a developer had proposed a "heavy retail" project for the circle but said the pandemic "blew it out of the water."

He said he'll stick with the village's plan for Plaza Circle.