Smile Politely

Central Champaign makeover in the works?

A couple of weeks ago, the Champaign City Council approved staff time to explore the feasibility of building a minor league ballpark in Champaign, an initiative that has been championed by Mayor Gerard and a volunteer committee of supporters. But this is just the tip of the speculative iceberg in terms of redevelopment that may be in the works for the North Market St. area, defined as roughly between Neil St. and the train tracks, north of Bradley and South of I-74. The area’s location between the highway, downtown Champaign, and ultimately, the university and its research park, would make it strategic to a newly-designed 4th street “gateway” to the university area. Moreover, the area harbors low property values that could promise high profit returns.  Basically, it is a developer’s dream. If only people didn’t already live there.

A significant percentage of these inconveniently located residents are the working and non-working poor, many of whom rent “eyesore” housing that has fallen victim to negligent landlords and the inability of the City of Champaign to effectively enforce property maintenance codes. Such poor conditions exist especially in the Bristol Place neighborhood that lies east of Market St., and for the past two years, a redevelopment committee has been working on how to solve that problem. In the meantime, the city wants to prioritize the acquisition of property there and hopes to convince the Champaign County Housing Authority to grant subsidy preference to displaced residents. Clearly, the city has high interest in this real estate. 

But they aren’t the only ones. The number of players with a potential interest in the development of this area is significant. Private developers, resident businesses, local landlords, banks, the park district, the public housing authority, the school district, Champaign neighborhood services, city planners, cultural/business organizations, interests representing the university and downtown Champaign, all have eyed the area, clipboards in hand. Because of the nature of these kinds of deals, speculations abound: big money could be at stake, lips are sealed, but some may be licking them just the same.

For Bristol Place, this means a complete bulldozing of the neighborhood to make way for a mixed income development, one that might look better from passing car windows, but that does little to solve the problem of our area’s lack of affordable housing for low-income and poverty-stricken residents. Ester Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union (CUTU),  explains:

My understanding is that they want to tear down all properties, regardless of their condition (including two fairly recently re-habbed public housing houses and two Habitat for Humanity houses that look fairly new) and replace the entire area with a tax-credit housing complex like Douglass Square. There has been some discussion about some commercial uses also, but I have heard nothing specific and don’t know if that will happen.

The only trouble with this plan is that mixed income developments (which are a fairly profitable business for those involved), while improving the look of this “gateway” area to our city, in reality do little to benefit those who are the most in need. She explains, “For tax-credit, mixed-income developments to be beneficial to the low-income community, they would have to have lower rents. Right now, rents are so high that to keep total housing costs below 30% of gross household income, tenants at these “mixed income” complexes would have to be earning $30,000–$40,000 annually.” Unfortunately, even this modest income is out of reach of many area residents.

In addition, in order for this urban renewal project to take place, says Patt, The Housing Authority board has to “give preference for those Section 8 vouchers to people at Bristol Place” and therefore, “they have to create the fiction that they are giving preference points to people displaced by government action. I believe they will not restrict it to government action to condemn housing that is unfit for human habitation, but for any housing ‘a government’ condemns.” Such a move is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Bristol Place isn’t the only neighborhood with a deteriorating housing stock. Last week, Mayor Gerard turned his attention to the appointment of a new member of the currently dead-locked-over-this-issue Champaign County Housing Authority Board, an appointment that may determine the fate of the city’s redevelopment plan for this area.

In the meantime, other parties interested in the area are keeping a low profile, or have put their interests on hold. The Champaign School Board, for instance, keenly motivated to find a new location for Central High School, once considered the area as a possibility, but is now looking elsewhere. Board member Kristine Chalifoux explains, “We are not particularly interested in the area just south [of Human Kinetics] because it is such a political issue (moving out so many households because the city doesn’t like it).” In addition, she sees large construction projects as costly due to the floodplain topography of the area: “spending too much money on moving a floodplain means too much money not left for other things, such as better buildings and education.”

So what’s the fuss? Are larger development projects really in the works for this area? What about Gerard’s ballpark project?

“I don’t see the zoning changing from residential to commercial in that area,” maintains city councilman Michael Ladue. “This project has been in the making for a couple of years now (referring to the redevelopment of Bristol Place).” While Ladue maintains that the city’s role is to simply clean up a neighborhood in need, he is much more critical of spending city time or money on exploring the Mayor’s ballpark project, the site of which is yet to be determined, but that some have suggested might be headed in that direction::

According the report given to council (referring to Illinois Business Consulting Group’s feasibility study presented to city council last month), such a project would take 20 million to build, and then 25 years to break even. Do we really need to tease out city staff time to work on this project? No. If investors want to build it — fabulous — but don’t create work for city staff. We are already down 40 positions and the city is in maintenance/consolidation mode!

On the other hand, Champaign County Convention and Visitor Bureau CEO and President Jayne DeLuce, is enthusiastic about a stadium in our area: “Our community lends itself beautifully to it. We have a sports-minded community, and having a minor league team will only complement what we already have here.” She welcomes any initiative for potential recreational development in the area, and explains that the Bureau is already “engaged in a lot of dialogue with the mayor, the city, and the university” concerning the ballpark project, especially looking at other communities to see what is working. Emphasizing the importance of research, she says, “You have to have the right business model to make it work. It will have to be a multi-use arena in order to provide a constant revenue stream.” As for the siting, DeLuce is excited by the prospect of a stadium close to, or in downtown Champaign, where there is, as she explains, “an existing, built-in entertainment value.”

How close to downtown remains uncertain, as do the complexities of funding and supporting a costly recreational project in today’s economy. What is certain, though, is that when the dust settles (if indeed proposed projects actually occur), there will be winners and losers, and the trick will surely be to ensure a fair playing field for all.

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