ST. FRANCIS – St. Francis mayor Al Richards called it the “next step.” Tom VanHimbergen, vice president of operations and CFO at Cardinal Stritch University, termed it “another step.” Semantics did not alter the result: the St. Francis City Council approved Stritch’s request to rezone the Archbishop Cousins Center property from mixed use to educational use Feb. 2.

The 6-0 vote to accept the city’s planning commission recommendation to rezone the 44 acres followed a two-and-a-half hour public hearing at St. Francis High School in which more than 50 people spoke in favor of and against the proposed zoning change. The hearing had been scheduled for Jan. 5, but was postponed when the council chambers at city hall could not accommodate those who wished to participate. On Feb. 2, the high school gym accommodated the more than 350 people in attendance.

Emphasizing the “next step” idea in his opening remarks, Richards noted that negotiations would continue with Stritch as they move toward development of the land.

“When they go forward, the siting of any building or any structure or parking lot then has to be brought to the planning commission,” he said, noting that what people saw on the renderings provided by Stritch might not be the way the campus eventually looks.

“It’s not all going to be decided tonight and tomorrow morning the bulldozers will show up,” he added.

After the vote, VanHimbergen said, “It’s a long process. We have to get WE Energies under contract.”

Besides the Cousins Center property, Stritch has been negotiating with the utility to purchase 87 acres it owns south of the archdiocesan property. According to VanHimbergen, the university would like to close both deals by May 1.

Joanne Williams, vice president of marketing and public relations for Stritch, referring to St. Francis as the original location of St. Clare College in 1937, said, “Now it’s time to come home.”

Noting that Stritch would “put St. Francis on the educational map,” Williams said its location in the city would be helpful “not only to reinvigorate this educational center of the church, but to create a center where all forms of education and scholarly research can flourish.”

VanHimbergen delineated more than a million dollars’ worth of financial investments Stritch would make in the property, e.g., storm pond study and construction, urban planning study, and nature trail construction, while emphasizing the school’s concern for the environment.

“Fifty percent of this acreage will remain green space – woods, wetlands, ponds, and walking trails,” he said. “Cardinal Stritch University is committed to reverencing nature.”

In the more than two hours of comments that followed, opponents voiced concerns about increased levels of noise due to traffic and campus activities, impact of the buildings on the Seminary Woods, and that Stritch would not provide tax revenue for the city.

Proponents of the rezoning touted Stritch’s value to retail business, the attraction of being a “university city” and the educational and cultural opportunities it would provide, and having Franciscans as caretakers of the environment.

With the crowd thinned to less than 100, the council voted, and another step – the next step – had been taken in Stritch’s journey to St. Francis.