Residents demand Orchard Downs answers

By Nate Sandstrom

More than 100 people attended a meeting at the Urbana Civic Center on Tuesday night to find out the University’s plans for development at Orchard Downs. The answer provided by Jack Dempsey, the University’s executive director of facilities and services, was that the University has none.

Dempsey attempted to allay the fears of those in attendance that the University planned to lease Orchard Downs, an area southeast of the University’s campus that houses graduate students and has large park areas and paths, for large-scale commercial development. Several in attendance expressed concern about a report completed by consultant Jons Lang LaSalle that listed a large outdoor shopping area as a possible use in the area.

Helaine Silverman, an Urbana resident who lives near Orchard Downs, was among the vocal critics of the report.

“In April (last year, at a meeting) Jones Lang LaSalle consultant did not listen to us at all,” she said. “The Jones Lang LaSalle report is completely unacceptable to the homeowners of Southeast Urbana.

“How many more times must the University and the city see standing-room-only crowds from southeast Urbana to understand our profound concern and agitation?” Silverman asked.

Joseph Phebus, a southwest Urbana resident, argued that it made little sense to add more retail shopping in Urbana when so much space was not being utilized in downtown Urbana and along Philo Road.

“We don’t want commercial development. There’s no need for commercial development,” he said.

Dempsey said the University had no plans for large scale shopping areas in Orchard Downs. He said commercial or retail development would be on a smaller scale, such as building coffee shops.

“We’re here tonight because there are just rumors abound. If there is no information, it gets made up, and pretty soon we have all kinds of concerns over property values and quality of life and those kinds of issues,” Dempsey said.

“We hope to be able to work with everyone as we move forward. Again, this is going to take years,” he added.

Dempsey said that a final decision about graduate housing would not be made until two to four years from now, and any decision about commercial or retail development would come after that.

He said the University was still considering several options of where graduate student housing would be located. Dempsey said one possible location for future graduate housing was the Burnham Tax Increment Finance district in Champaign between Campustown and downtown. Dempsey said the University was also offering Urbana a chance to propose a site as well, but a specific location has not been determined. He said they would want either location to be close to bus service and international stores. He said it was still possible that graduate student housing would remain in Orchard Downs, but that regardless of the location, facilities would need to be upgraded to keep the University competitive as a graduate student recruiter.

“To meet the needs of today’s graduate students we need to provide something one more step up,” Dempsey said.

He said the University would like to make improvements to graduate housing, including high-speed Internet, air conditioning, carpeting, laundry facilities, thicker walls and more closet space.

Whether the University, a private developer or a collaborative public-private project would fund the development was still unclear, Dempsey said.

Audience members stressed that they would like to see graduate student housing remain in Urbana.

Mary Kruse, who teaches English conversation classes to visiting scholars, graduate students and their spouses, said she had recently spent some time talking about the things graduate students like about living in Orchard Downs.

“What came through loud and clear was the setting, the green space, the playgrounds, the trees. The safety for their children – they don’t have to worry about their kids and I can’t imagine them over in that Burnham Hospital site being safe,” she said.

When the issue of the safety of the Burnham area of Champaign came up again, Dempsey replied: “There is no intention to put students with families there.”

After the meeting, Dempsey clarified that students with families meant those with children. However, housing for married and single graduate students would still be possible for the area, he said.

Dempsey said that Chancellor Richard Herman asked the Graduate School Dean Richard Wheeler to complete another survey of graduate housing before a final consideration was made about where graduate housing will be located in the future. Dempsey said the report should be available in the next week.

Many left Tuesday’s meeting still frustrated with the University’s lack of answers about the Orchard Downs development plan.

“Trying to look at it from the University’s side, they probably thought they should have the plan in place and then notify us and that (the process) was probably the opposite of what they should have done,” said Helen Satterthwaite, a southeast Urbana resident and a former state representative who attended Tuesday’s meeting.