During the 1990s, the invisible hand of the free market gave Champaign the finger. Buildings were abandoned as businesses fled to more profitable areas on the city’s periphery. Downtown became a ghost town. Blight and decay marked much of the city’s core, until the city stepped in.
Although the city of Champaign continues to approve a number of subdivisions on its periphery, it has steadily wooed developers into investing and re-investing in the core of the city. Champaign is following the lead of many cities by encouraging urban infill, which is the redevelopment of existing lots and buildings. However, the revitalization of the city core hasn’t been cheap.
The city uses an array of tools to encourage infill that come in the form of bonds, special zoning, tax breaks, fee waivers and discounted sale of land to developers.
City hall did not respond to requests for the exact amount of money devoted to these projects over the years.
The concept of urban infill is popular among city planners said David Morley, a research associate with the American Planning Association, in a telephone interview.
Morley said that planners have moved away from the post-World War II inclination to keep building single-family, low-density homes on the outskirts of a city. This approach, said Morley, requires a city to expand essential services — such as utilities, fire and police — to its outskirts, putting a greater strain on its resources. Using existing lots in the interior of the city, or redeveloping dilapidated or obsolete buildings, doesn’t stretch out the city’s ability to provide services, said Morley.
Champaign has rapidly expanded in recent years. According to the US Census the city jumped from over 56,000 residents in 1970 to approximately 72,000 in 2006. The total number of housing units increased in Champaign by 10 percent between 1990 and 2000. The population of Champaign’s neighborhood east of Wright Street only increased by about 50 people between 1990 and 2000. The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission’s website expects Champaign’s population to swell to more than 75,000 by the year 2010.
In order to address Champaign’s rapid growth, the city drafted a Comprehensive Plan in 2006, which articulated a set of principles and goals geared toward guiding the planning process. The document calls for more infill, since development on the fringes strains the city’s ability to provide services to outlying areas.
“From a commercial perspective we like to reuse buildings and invest in the core,” says Teri Legner, economic development manager with the city of Champaign, in a telephone interview.
Legner says that part of the reason the city desires urban infill is because it keeps a “healthy core,” meaning that the interior of the city doesn’t become rundown and under-utilized as a result of developers reluctance to invest in it.
However, developers are not always keen on the idea.
Marci Dodds, a Champaign city council member who represents the city’s fourth district, says that the council is generally supportive of infill projects, but says that there are “quite a few” difficulties in implementing them.
She describes the whole process of urban infill as “not as straight forward” as building a new structure in a new subdivision, since doing so requires less planning and no demolition costs on the part of the developer.
“Developers never do anything to lose money,” says Dodd.
Signature Homes Project Manager Steve Meid, explains that infill is costly to the developer in a place like Champaign-Urbana. The money required to revamp or wholly demolish a dilapidated building provides a disincentive for developers to do infill, according to Meid.
Additionally, Meid says that it’s difficult for a developer to sell a project once it’s finished since the newly polished and revamped building has a higher price tag than the humbler buildings in its vicinity.
One of the bigger infill projects the city assisted with is the redevelopment of the old Burnham hospital off of Springfield Avenue, which is currently being built by the Pickus Companies into a new apartment complex.
The old Burnham Hospital was a hulking blemish of a building, riddled with asbestos and other toxic substances. Legner described the Burnham building as “an extreme case,” due to its severely dilapidated state.
According to the plan, the building will become a sleek apartment complex with its own grocery store that towers over the university district. It was set to open in August 2008, although by looking at the building, there may have been some setbacks.
In order to address the presence of the rundown building, the city purchased it from the state of Illinois for more than $2 million in 2002, according to city documents. In 2004, the city issued an $8 million bond that assisted with demolition and redevelopment expenses, according to city documents.
The city sold the land at less than the appraised value to the Pickus Companies, and offered up to $100,000 dollars in improving surrounding streets, according to a document obtained from the Champaign Planning Department.
Another infill project supported by the city is the development of the Douglas Square housing off of Bradley Avenue. The city of Champaign helped redevelop the old Burch Village, a dilapidated and crime-ridden housing project, into new housing with a mix of units at market rates, and below market rate, according to the planning department’s website.
The city helped encourage this transformation by directing $400,000 in federal funds from the department of Housing and Urban Development to developers and waiving thousands of dollars in permitting fees, according to city documents.
The prim, freshly-painted new houses in Douglas Square radiate a warm hue, that jump outs starkly from the drab, dog-eared structures that surround them.
According to Greg Skaggs, Champaign’s community development specialist, the city is trying to do even more to encourage infill. Champaign’s Neighborhood Services has begun using global information systems to identify empty or underutilized lots within the city of Champaign that would be suitable for infill, says Skaggs.
Skaggs also stated, in an e-mail, that the city was in the process of identifying lots in its possession that could have housing built on them. Currently there are six to 10 lots that could be suitable to have a house built on them, said Skaggs.
Skaggs said in a telephone interview that the city will direct money from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development toward development of this housing much the same way Douglas Square was funded. This funding comes along with a requirement that the housing be geared toward people making less than 80 percent of the medium income for the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area, says Skaggs.
However, Dodds is still concerned that despite the city’s efforts to direct development inward developers are still developing on the fringes, which she suggests strains the city’s ability to provide services.