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From tree planting to commercial development, missionary group shapes Techny area 


July 20, 2011
By Jeff Danna

Speaking to a small gathering of people Wednesday at the Society of the Divine Word’s Northbrook campus, Rev. Quang Duc Dinh talked about being a good steward of the land.

“We cannot sacrifice long-term sustainability for short-term benefits,” said the rector of the Catholic missionary organization’s Chicago Province. “This land is a perpetual asset that supports our work in over 70 countries.”

All around him was evidence of a changing landscape in northern Cook County, and area once dominated by farmland that in the past two decades has become a hotbed of commercial and residential development — mainly due to the efforts of the Society of the Divine Word.

Across Waukegan Road from where Quang was speaking, construction workers continued to build a new retail center adjacent to the Willow Festival shopping center. Nearby, work continued on the Meadow Ridge gated residential community. All these developments, plus others, are on the organization’s land.

Quang, though, was speaking at an event commemorating a massive reforestation project. Over the past five years, more than 40,000 trees have been planted behind the Society’s Techny Towers conference center.

Wednesday’s event, which included the dedication of a white oak tree, attracted the likes of Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and State Rep. Daniel Biss. Like the development across the street, the reforestation project was yet another sign of the shift from the agricultural land uses of decades past.

The Society’s history in the once unincorporated area near Willow and Waukegan roads dates to 1899. The campus once housed St. Joseph’s Technical School, which gave the area its name: Techny, according to the organization.

The hundreds of acres of land surrounding the campus was long used for farming, which supported the Society’s missionary work and fed the Techny community.

“This was wilderness, far removed form the big city,” Quang said during Wednesday’s event.

But in the 1980s, as the surrounding communities of Northbrook, Glenview and Northfield began to develop, the farmland became obsolete, said Brother Mathew Zemel, president of the Techny Land Corp. The Society began to develop a plan for how to make best use of its assets.

In 1989, the village of Northbrook annexed the Techny area. The Society gave some of the land to the Northbrook Park District, and a small portion was sold to a private developer for residences, Zemel said. But the majority of the land remained in the Society’s control.

The Society did not seek to maximize profits through development, said Ginny Mulligan, executive director of the Techny Land Corp. But it did want to find the best use to suit its own needs and the needs of the community at large.

The first development began in 1990, and over the next two decades, the west side of Waukegan Road between Willow and Voltz roads would be populated with businesses such as Whole Foods, Pinstripes and Crate & Barrel. The housing developments Meadow Ridge and Royal Ridge sprouted on both sides of Waukegan.

Development has been carefully considered, Techny Land Corp. representatives said. Even before a project goes to the Northbrook Village Board for approval, it must first pass muster with the Society. Most of the developments were built through long-term lease agreements with the Society, spanning 49 to 150 years. That allows the missionary organization to retain control of the land.

“It’s a great mix of uses,” said Tom Poupard, director of community planning and development for the village of Northbrook. “It’s been really critical from a land use control and property tax stability perspective.”

The Society of the Divine Word also retained about 160 acres of land for its own campus on the east side of Waukegan Road. Like much of the developed land, the large field behind Techny Towers and other buildings had been clear-cut for farming at the beginning of the 20th century, Rev. Quang said.

The Society took a different approach to that land. With the help of an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant, the organization was able to begin planting native trees on the land in 2006.

Of the more than 40,000 trees, about half were planted by hand by the Society’s priests and brothers, along with community volunteers, said Dave Griffith, district forester for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“This community and planet is much better served by returning this land to the state we found it in,” Quang said.

The Society’s efforts aren’t quite complete. The tree planting project is set to continue for about another five years, and development of the west side of Waukegan Road is not over.

A senior housing facility is still in the works for one vacant parcel, while a couple others are still on the market, Mulligan said. Chase bank is set to occupy part of the retail building currently under construction, but no tenants are set for the remaining spaces.

“They are looking at sustainability, a long-term view,” said Northbrook Trustee Robert Israel, who attended Wednesday’s event. “In order to do that, you have to use your resources wisely.”