CU invests in Boneyard Creek improvements

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

When Boneyard Creek first appeared on the map back in 1858, it was believed that locals took offense to such a name for this silvery, clean tributary of the Saline river. Initially, it was known as Silver Creek to Native Americans who were settled around its banks, but the origin of the ‘Boneyard’ name still remains unclear.

According to records maintained by the City of Urbana, stories claim the name was coined by settlers who discovered mounds of sun-bleached bones along the banks of the creek, which were either remains left by the Native Americans or by those killed during a major blizzard.

The 3.3-mile-long creek flows through the Champaign-Urbana area, also flowing through the University, before connecting with the Saline Branch in the northeastern part of Urbana. As the primary drainage pathway in the county, the creek drains 5,311 acre-feet (8.3 square miles).

But, historically, there have been some pressing problems with the urban waterway.

“In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, I remember people would go out canoeing on Green Street because the flooding was so bad,” said Brad Bennett, assistant city engineer for the Urbana public works department. “In the ’70s, (Boneyard Creek) was so polluted that it looked like a sewer.”

Since then, the governments of Champaign and Urbana, along with University assistance, have made calculated investments into improvement plans, development and storm-water management to significantly enhance the value and quality of Boneyard Creek.

On the Urbana side, Bennett concedes it’s not perfect today, but the water is clear and recent developments hint at a brighter future.

In 2012, he managed the Boneyard Creek Crossing Project, between Griggs Street and Broadway Avenue. The project worked towards improving the environmental, economic and social conditions of the area, which included a shared-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as an amphitheater.

The development was part of Urbana’s May 2008 Master Plan for Boneyard Creek Improvement. It was prepared in cooperation with Wenk, a landscape architecture firm in Denver, and Missouri-based HNTB, a construction management company.

Bennett is hoping to lead more projects similar to this in the future. This will allow him to integrate the creek with a biking and pedestrian corridor that stretches all the way to Champaign.

The drainage department also conducts an annual inspection of Boneyard Creek from Wright Street, the border of Urbana, all the way up to the confluence with the Saline. For this inspection, they remove trash, fallen trees and any blockages.

Bennett’s counterpart in Champaign, Eleanor Blackmon, has been supervising development around the rest of the creek for 20 years now.

She said the standards for construction in the city have changed in recent years, which has led to an urgency for implementing better storm-water management measures.

“Density of building in the city has also changed,” Blackmon said. “So (Boneyard Creek) didn’t have the capacity to receive drainage. And, there was repeated flooding from the time of the original settlement, which became less tolerable by the community as we had more expensive construction.”

In the 1990s, the City of Champaign decided to allocate a portion of sales tax collected to drainage improvements, and that has made a difference, Blackmon added.

As Champaign’s assistant city engineer, Blackmon also serves as the project manager for Champaign’s own seven-phase Boneyard Creek Improvement Plan.

In the first phase, Blackmon led developments in the Campustown channel, which buried the creek from Sixth Street to First Street and also installed underground piping. The Healey Street Detention Basin, which is located on the intersection of Healey and Locust streets and provides about 120 acre-feet of rainfall detention, was also a part of phase one.

For the second phase, in 2006, Blackmon worked with outside agencies to develop improvements around Scott Park and the Second Street Detention Basin, a 10-acre park.

The city recruited Hitchcock Design Group, a national landscape planning form, to consult on this phase. Mark Underwood, principal for HDG, was the project manager and lead designer and worked toward addressing the myriad of flooding issues associated with the creek.

With a budget of $12 million allocated by the city, in addition to implementing basin improvements, Underwood planned to do much more.

“We went on as designers to really create this nice park that would connect Campustown and downtown Champaign,” he said. “We wanted to do something that was gonna be more conducive to recreation, more conducive to economic redevelopment and also addressed all the storm-water issues.”

By 2010, Underwood and his team had completed two retention basins that provided 100-year flood protection downstream, with a total storage capacity of 47 acre-feet and over five acres of open recreational space.

In recent years, the community has started recognizing the value of Boneyard Creek and its surrounding developments, said Chris Billing, an organizer of Boneyard Creek Community Day.

The Community Day started as an organized litter-cleaning drive around Scott Park with about 50 volunteers in 2006, Billing said. Since then, the initiative attracts over 500 volunteers and isn’t limited to areas around Boneyard Creek, as it spans across C-U and Savoy.

According to its website, the 2016 Community Day covered 1,460 acres and collected 52 cubic yards of litter. But it’s about more than just cleaning up.

Billing said the drive also serves as an opportunity to educate community members and raise awareness about the importance of local urban stream corridors.

As far as future developments, Blackmon said the city is preparing to enter the next phases of the Boneyard Creek Improvement Plan. This will cover the storm-water detention and underground piping from University Avenue to Green Street. Underwood is already working on the west Washington Street detention projects.

“And as far as flooding goes, which had been a problem for a number of years, (Boneyard Creek) won’t flood anymore,” Underwood said. “City has done a great job of creating pocket parks to improve storm-water management. Developers can come in with confidence and know that their investment has been protected.”

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