City planning draws controversy

By Nate Sandstrom

The Urbana City Council added several amendments late Monday night to the Urbana Comprehensive Plan, which sets goals for future development in the city. Residents spoke at the meeting for more than two hours of public comments about the plan’s controversial parts.

Aspects of the plan that drew the most attention were the possibility of adding an interchange to Interstate 74 on the east side of the city, proposed uses of property along Busey Avenue near campus and the redevelopment of University-owned Orchard Downs.

Several residents who live in northeast Urbana and the unincorporated land just outside of the city said the addition of roads to their neighborhood would harm the rural characteristics of the area as well as rare plants and animals.

May Berenbaum, head of the University’s Department of Entomology and a neighborhood resident, referred to land in the area as “living laboratories” with research value because they have been documented for decades.

The addition of an interchange at High Cross Road “puts at risk many of these species that for all intensive purposes can’t be found elsewhere,” she said.

“Once you lose it (ecological diversity) you can’t build it back,” Berenbaum added.

Bjorg Holte, a High Cross Road resident, suggested that signs could direct traffic to U.S. 150 and State Route 130, the intersection where a Wal-Mart is scheduled to be built, without spending additional money to build an interchange that would have detrimental impacts on the environment.

A group of residents in the area formed the Rural Urbana Roads and Land Preservation Group (RURAL) and collected 302 signatures in opposition of new road construction in the area.

Rob Kowalski, Urbana planning manager, said the city worked with residents in the area to produce an agreeable plan.

“There will be a need for roads in this area. I think it’s unreasonable to say you cannot have any new roads anywhere ever again,” he said.

Kowalski said the goal was to build roads that provided services to new development but still reflect the natural character of that area.

In response to the residents’ concerns, Alderwoman Ruth Wyman proposed an amendment that stated future roadway extensions in the plan be studied to determine their necessity and their environmental and ecological as well as economic impacts.

John Ison, 103 W. Holmes St., expressed concerns that a University plan to lease Orchard Downs to developers would lead graduate student housing to be relocated. He said that the relocation would make the proposed neighborhood businesses in Orchard Downs unnecessary. He also said new businesses in that area could harm existing businesses in downtown Urbana and along Philo Road.

Although the University – which is tax-exempt – owns Orchard Downs, Urbana could tax businesses that locate in the area if the land is leased to private developers.

Alderwoman Esther Patt and Alderman Chris Alix asked Kowalski to include a buffer zone of trees or a park along both Florida Avenue and Race Street in the plan.

The third area of contention was the Lincoln-Busey corridor, which Illinois and Ohio streets border on the north and south. In the current version of the plan, the area is listed for further study as to how the area can be used.

Several neighborhood residents expressed concerns that this would lead to the single-family homes on Busey Avenue being converted into apartment buildings.

“This neighborhood doesn’t need further study. It needs to be left as it was (in an earlier study called the downtown to campus plan),” said Charlie Smyth, a former City Council member who is also running unopposed in the 1st Ward in next week’s elections.

Smyth said a buffer zone between the multi-family housing on Lincoln Avenue and the single-family homes of west Urbana exists in the backyards of Busey Avenue houses. He said moving the buffer zone along Busey Avenue would be detrimental to the neighborhood.

Patt later proposed an amendment that would designate the corridor as a residential area to be consistent with the campus to downtown plan, but Alderwoman Danielle Chynoweth argued that it would be better to differentiate between properties on Lincoln and Busey avenues. The proposal was moved for further discussion at the next meeting.

Another area of the plan that caused some confusion was a group of homes near Urbana High School. They are indicated on the map as becoming part of a long-range expansion plan by the Urbana School District.

Tim Gibbs, 904 South Race Street, was surprised to find his home in the area.

“I just bought one of those houses and I don’t want it to be a parking lot,” he said.

Alix said the School Board would have to purchase the land from homeowners before they could expand in the future and encouraged Gibbs to contact members of the School Board.

The City Council also passed additional amendments to the plan, then moved to send the plan to their meeting on Monday for further discussion. If aldermen agree on the final language of the plan, it could be approved during that meeting.