Diane Marlin is beginning her second term as mayor of Urbana, after winning a contested primary in February, and running unopposed in the recent consolidated election. I reached out to Marlin for her thoughts on her first term, and her plans for the next one.
Smile Politely: Since most of your first term was pre-COVID, let’s start there. Prior to COVID, what are some accomplishments are you most proud of?
Diane Marlin: We restored financial stability to the City; modernized internal systems to make them more efficient and secure; rewrote the Liquor Code; re-organized several departments; and completed three longoverdue studies that will serve as the basis for increased investment in public infrastructure. We launched the multi-year Comprehensive Planning process and completed a visioning process for the 16-acre Lincoln Square site as well as the feasibility study for extending the Kickapoo Rail Trail through downtown Urbana.
We strengthened relationships with major employers and investors, which resulted in the first new residential construction in downtown Urbana in 15 years as well as a number of other multifamily, commercial, and industrial projects. We signed a development agreement for a $15 million renovation of the Landmark Hotel into a Hilton Tapestry boutique hotel. We helped transition the Stone Creek Golf Course to become the home of the University of Illinois men and women’s golf teams while preserving the tax base of the subdivision. We partnered with Habitat for Humanity, the Housing Authority of Champaign County and private developers to build or renovate about 170 units of affordable housing.
The newly-completed MCORE reconstruction on Green Street between Lincoln Avenue and
Lincoln Square is the best example in the city of a “multi-modal complete street” that serves people of all ages and abilities. We also took specific steps to preserve most of the mature trees in the public right-of-way (That’s why the new sidewalks curve in and out in this corridor.). We began to re-envision public safety and policing in Urbana. We adopted the Ten Shared Principles for community policing, joined the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE), and adopted resolutions to end structural racism, and prioritize de-escalation in the Urbana Police Department’s Use of Force Policy. We are working with the ACLU and the NAACP to rewrite our Use of Force policy. The UPD changed its traffic stop policy effective January 1 with the goal of eliminating racial disparities in traffic stops.
We expanded the Public Arts Program to become the Public Arts and Culture Program to celebrate our multicultural community. We established the “Nourish Urbana” farm to restore soil on a plot of city-owned cropland in rural north Urbana and convert it to food production; installed a solar farm on the former landfill; promoted residential solar installation and pesticide-free yard maintenance; renewed our status as a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community; adopted Vision Zero for eliminating traffic deaths and injuries and updated the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. I served on the Mahomet Aquifer Protection Task Force charged by the Illinois General Assembly to develop recommendations for protecting the quality and quantity of our sole fresh-water resource.
SP: Can you talk a bit about being a mayor during this public health and economic crisis? What has been most challenging? How prepared do you feel the city was for something like this?
Marlin: The past 12 months of COVID-19 have been the most difficult of my life, but I’ve never been more proud in my professional career than I am of our community’s response to the first year of the pandemic. Everything we did to strengthen the city’s economy and internal infrastructure during our first three years helped us navigate through the uncertainty, fear, and financial unpredictability of the last year. Following advice from public health officials and scientists, we set several goals at the outset and stayed true to them. These included reducing spread of the disease, protecting the capacity of the local health care system, protecting the health of our residents and employees, maintaining core city services, and supporting local businesses.
This required city staff to shoulder an enormous amount of extra work in a very short period of time because the COVID response came in addition to their other duties. And, like everyone else, city staff were impacted by COVID-related isolation, quarantine, illness, and caregiving. The overall response fromour many partners in government, social services, emergency response, health care, the educationalsystem and business community is unparalleled anywhere in the country! Going forward, we mustencourage the public to get vaccinated and we will continue to help people and our economy reset and recover. The latter will take years.
SP: Racial justice and policing has been in the national and Urbana spotlights this year. The city council passed a resolution to end structural racism last month. How do you see this playing out in terms of policy? In what ways can Urbana improve?
Marlin: I believe communities must view all policies and practices through a lens of racial equity in order to move forward. The City Council’s resolution to end structural racism provides the context and framework for this work as we re-envision public safety and policing accountability. Our revised Use of Force Policy now explicitly prioritizes de-escalation. We will add a civilian member to the Urbana Police Department’s internal Use of Force Review committee.
We are planning a co-responder approach with the City of Champaign by pairing mental health experts with law-enforcement personnel in response to calls for service for persons experiencing a behavioral health crisis. This is a more compassionate and effective way to help our citizens. Over the next four years, we will re-imagine policing and public safety by 1) categorizing the 25,000 calls for service received annually by the Urbana Police Department and 2) determining which situations require a traditional law enforcement response and which could be more effectively addressed by a different entity. This would help us allocate resources appropriately, meet the needs of the public, build trust and accountability, reduce demands on police officers, and provide longterm solutions to recurring issues.
SP: What’s happening with the Landmark Hotel?
Marlin: The City of Urbana signed an agreement in 2019 with Marksons Affiliates, LLC for a $15 million renovation of the Landmark Hotel into a Hilton Tapestry boutique property. Due to the pandemic, start of construction was moved from July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021. The developers recently indicated that they expect construction to begin on schedule this summer. The hotel will open under a new name and identity and I believe it will bring new vitality and spark investment in our downtown.
SP: Urbana is currently working on a comprehensive plan, beginning with input gathering from the community. What is YOUR vision for the future of Urbana, and what goals do you have for your second term?
Marlin: Looking ahead, I want to grow a healthy, resilient, and more equitable Urbana. My priorities for next term: Work with City Council members, city staff, community partners and the public to support pandemic recovery for residents and businesses, invest more in public infrastructure, redefine public safety and well-being, incorporate climate resilience and racial equity into city policy and infrastructure, enhance housing security, and promote economic development and job growth on a foundation of sound financial management.