In the southeast corner of Champaign, the black soil plowed for generations into small wave-like rows is being cleared to make way for housing and office space. A number of prim, attractive and similar looking houses line the roads. Brick walls with stone trusses and beige siding enclose them. Their walkways cut through neatly trimmed lawns to stately front door steps surrounded by woodchips or small seas of carefully selected pebbles. There are no thick, stout trees here — only saplings. The neighborhoods are too new for them to have grown tall.
People will commute to and from these homes. They’ll raise children, and take out mortgages to live in them. But these houses are also ground zero for a thorny issue facing growing cities throughout the U.S.: sprawl.
The city of Champaign has worked to encourage and facilitate its expansion. It has stacked subdivision upon subdivision along its periphery. Country roads are being strained by increased traffic. The bus service isn’t reaching all corners. The city is stretching to provide other services to increasingly remote areas. Change could be in the air as the city contemplates putting the brakes on the growth train.
“There is no question the area of Champaign, Urbana, Savoy and adjacent unincorporated areas of the county are experiencing sprawl,” says Dannel McCollum, who served as mayor of Champaign for most of the 1990s and has written extensively about county geography.
McCollum attributes the problem to the area’s three different sets of land use plans in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy. With three different approaches to development there can be no comprehensive approach to planning, and developers will flee to more friendly jurisdictions if slapped with tough zoning requirements, added McCollum.
“Traditionally the city of Champaign has been a little bit more free market when it comes to development,” says Champaign City Planner Lacey Rains, who explains that if a development seems feasible and the developer can turn a profit the city has tended to say “OK, go ahead.”
If a developer wants to build on a piece land set aside for development it needs to first get the green light from the city’s planning department and commission. It then goes to city council for approval.
Champaign City Council Member Karen Foster doesn’t recall any developments being turned down during her 15 months on the council.
Council Member Ken Pirok can’t remember any specific instances where the council has rejected a new subdivision or annexation, but remembers objecting to a new subdivision on grounds that developers would cash checks while the city was further strained to provide services.
Champaign began metastasizing shortly after WWII. Between 1970 and 2006 the city’s population jumped from over 56,000 residents to approximately 72,000, according to U.S. Census data. The city is likely to swell to just under 76,000 by 2010, according the city of Champaign’s website.
So how is the city managing this growth?
In 1992, after planners spent months pouring over maps and numbers, the city devised a “Comprehensive Plan” intended to address this very issue.
The plan, most recently revised in 2002, states that the city set aside 3,112 acres of undeveloped land on the city’s fringes for development in 1992. The document states that eager developers gobbled up the land tagged for growth more quickly than expected, and predicted a greater strain on the city to provide services to outlying areas.
The city offered up another 1,627 acres for development in 2002, according to a report on citywide growth on the city’s website. The report added that all of the land is being developed, or is in developers’ hands.
In order to quell developers’ hunger for new land the city has offered up new annexations. In total, the city annexed 2,693 acres since the 2002 plan was adopted, according to Rains.
Although there is no precise definition for sprawl, it is generally understood as urban development that extends haphazardly into surrounding open areas. It’s often marked by low-density housing that requires the use of a car to get anywhere.
In the 2002 May-June issue of “Public Health Reports,” Dr. Robert Frumkin of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health explains that sprawl adds to air pollution and traffic fatalities as a consequence of the car-dependent communities it creates. Additionally, the report contends sprawl creates a sluggish desk-couch-and-car-seat lifestyle and may threaten sensitive environmental features surrounding the city.
Arnab Chakraborty, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois, says that the city of Champaign doesn’t use much restrictive zoning to control growth.
“The city doesn’t have any restrictive zoning that says ‘you cannot build here,’” says Chakraborty. “If developers want to build way out west, the city can’t do anything.”
“I don’t like development on the fringes,” says Marci Dodds, who represents an inner district of Champaign on city council.
Dodds has been a vocal critic of Champaign’s outward growth voting against new subdivisions. She argues that development on the fringes costs the city more to provide services. Additionally, Dodds prefers pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use “citylets,” arguing that they create a better sense of neighborhood.
The city has been working to counter this trend by encouraging urban infill (the reuse of existing facilities, and the insertion of new structures inside the city’s core.) According to Rains, infill is desirable because the existing infrastructure and proximity to the city’s center makes it easier to provide utilities and other services.
Champaign has had some success in directing development toward the interior. A number of dilapidated buildings scattered throughout the city have been molded into new public parking decks, slick hotels and conference centers, and affordable public housing, among others.
However, it hasn’t come cheap.
The city has spent about $3.85 million subsidizing infill, according to Kerri Spear of Champaign’s neighborhoods services department. The city has also provided a number of tax incentives for infill development.
“It’s never more profitable to do infill unless someone is going to pay you to do it,” says Steve Meid, project manager with housing developer Signature Homes, a company that has been doing business in the area since 1990.
Meid explains that infill might be profitable in a place like downtown Chicago, but in a place like Champaign, this often isn’t the case. Because a developer has to shell out money for demolition and renovations it’s harder to turn a profit, which is why the city so heavily subsidizes infill. Building on an unoccupied piece of land is often more straightforward.
Chakraborty says that although the city struggles to curb sprawl, one factor has helped: the university.
According to Chakraborty, the large student population creates demand for higher-density housing closer to the city’s core.
Interestingly and ironically, though, the university is one of the driving forces behind growth, according to Pirok.
Pirok explains that it’s difficult for a world class learning institution to exist in a dinky backwater. According to Pirok, Champaign needs to grow in a way that provides the community and services that support cutting edge research. Additionally, the university will have trouble recruiting top-notch faculty if they can’t offer them a sophisticated urban environment, he adds.
Associate Chancellor Robin Kaler didn’t respond to an inquiry.
A glance at U.S. Census numbers show that Urbana is taking a different tact. Between 1990 and now, the city only grew by about 3,000 people, compared to Champaign, which added about four times as much.
Libby Tyler, Urbana’s community development director, says that part of the reason Urbana has grown slower is because the city is more hemmed in by existing geographical features than Champaign. She also says that the taxes are a bit higher in Urbana.
“In Urbana people really like it how it is and don’t want it to get bigger,” says Tyler, who says that the city has worked to keep growth slow, steady, and compact.
“Urbana is ambivalent about growth,” adds Dodds.
The Green Party has raised sprawl as an issue in county board races. Joe Futrelle, who is running as a Green for county board, said in an e-mail exchange that he would push for comprehensive county zoning that would push back sprawl. However, this approach could only do so much, since county zoning doesn’t trump municipal zoning. Futrelle admits that there is no “silver bullet.”
McCollum says the only real way to stop the sprawl would be for the Illinois General Assembly to impose strict statewide land use regulations (like those in Oregon), a prospect he is less than optimistic about.
However, other factors may curb sprawl in Champaign.
Rains points out that the issue is likely to be scrutinized as the city revises its Comprehensive Plan.
The city is also conducting a study to see what development along the city’s edges is costing Champaign in terms of providing services (i.e. utilities, road maintenance, fire, police, etc.), and if it balances out the tax revenue generated from it. Depending on the conclusions of the study the city could begin slapping developers with assessment fees that would cover the costs of road wear-and-tear, and city services.
Dodds, worries that developers will view such fees as a sign that anti-capitalists have taken over city hall, and will flee to friendlier grounds.
“We’re going to take baby steps,” says Dodds.
However, Dodds points out that if gas prices stay high, the issue might resolve itself.