Neighbors ask sorority for new lot design

By Nate Sandstrom

When Dick Brazee and Ann Reisner moved into their house on Busey Avenue in west Urbana two years ago, they were excited. Several tall trees surrounded the house. Their back deck was even built around a tree that shoots more than 20 feet in the air through a hole in the deck.

Nine trees adjacent to their property have disappeared in the last year though, along with the house that used to stand on a lot next to their back yard. The now empty property is scheduled to be replaced with a parking lot that would connect to a current lot located between Reisner and Brazee’s house and the Alpha Chi Omega house on Lincoln Avenue.

“It’s really diminished our enjoyment of the house – this was our dream house,” Brazee said.

The proposed parking lot has upset several neighbors, who said the sorority’s representatives have failed to work with them to integrate the parking lot into the neighborhood. Neighbors have collected nearly 500 signatures on a petition asking the sorority to use a traffic pattern in the parking lot that petitioners say would be safer. The petition also asked the sorority to work with neighbors to plant trees that they said would help minimize noise and lights coming from the parking lot.

The plan for the new parking lot is to connect the 11 new parking spaces with the 24-space parking lot located behind the Alpha Chi Omega house. Traffic would also flow inbound and outbound to and from Iowa Street.

Neighbors have requested the sorority use one of two options – either that the parking lots remain separated by a fence that is scheduled to be torn down or that traffic is only allowed to flow into the parking lot from Iowa Street and not out. The neighbors argued that it is more difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and bicyclists who use the sidewalk that crosses the proposed parking lot when pulling out of the lot than when turning in from the street. Many children and students live in the area and use the sidewalk crossing the parking lot so this presents a danger to their safety, they said. Alternatively, they said if the fence stays up, separating it from the new parking lot, it would limit the traffic flow that would go in and out of a combined lot.

The neighbors’ argument is echoed by the city’s assessment of the current design, which deemed it as the least-safe plan for the new lot. In February, Urbana city staff recommended that Alpha Chi Omega representatives choose one of the two options now put forth by the neighbors’ petition; however, the sorority is not legally required to do so.

Alpha Chi Omega Housing Corporate Board President Peggy Anderson said she had spoken with representatives from the sorority’s national office and there was no planned response to the petition. Anderson said they have proposed a plan that exceeded what was required of them in the spirit of neighborhood cooperation. She said the sorority was planning on spending about $10,000 to alleviate drainage problems for neighbors and that they were planning to plant more trees than is required of them.

“We’ve been at this address since 1931,” Anderson said, “I feel like we’ve really upgraded and continued to make the situation the best possible.”

Anderson said that neighbors might be misperceiving the amount of traffic the parking lot would create in the neighborhood.

“It’s not like people are coming and going all the time,” she said.

Anderson said that each spot would be assigned to an individual house resident and that traffic would not be as frequent as a business parking lot. She said that the students did not use their cars on all their trips and often walked or used the bus.

Joanna Hussey, the Alpha Chi Omega Illinois chapter’s president, said that parking for house residents was “not necessarily” a problem, but some of the 56 women who live in the house do not have parking spaces available to them.

Anderson also said she thought it was helpful to move some parking off the street. She said she had spoken with the property owners of neighboring 808 Iowa St., who felt the plan would be an improvement to the neighborhood.

However, other neighbors disagreed.

The idea of a parking lot mixed in with residential housing is not a good idea, said Lisa Treul, co-coordinator of the West Urbana Neighborhood Association.

“Urban planners don’t do that because of safety concerns,” she said.

Treul lives a block away from the proposed site. She has a 5-year-old daughter she is worried about, but said she is equally concerned about sorority members’ safety.

“If there’s going to be an accident, it will involve one of their members, too,” she said.

“I just hope it doesn’t take a tragedy (to redesign the parking lot),” Treul said.

Brazee and Reisner said they would like to see at least as many trees replanted as were taken out, to help shield noise and light that would come from the new parking lot. They would also like to have new planting added in a way that would not provide refuge for potential attackers, they said. Aware that these changes would cost money, they have offered to pay a fair portion for the planting and a drainage ditch that would alleviate the flooding that occurs in their backyard and threatens their house’s foundation. They did not wish to disclose a dollar figure of how much they would pay.

“It would improve our house, their house and the neighborhood,” Brazee said.

Neighbors said that they had worked out agreements with Anderson in the past, noting she had a light above the current parking lot changed so it no longer shined into their homes.

But Reisner said the overall dispute about the future design on the lot has discouraged them from improving the house.

“If you’re not really sure this is the place we’re going to stay, it’s hard to invest in the house,” she said.

The lot that changed the law

In October, several neighborhood residents went before the Urbana City Council and complained that Alpha Chi Omega’s proposed new parking lot would lead to dangers for pedestrians and increased noise and light pollution for those who lived next to it. However, the City Council could do little to prevent the sorority from building the parking lot because the lot it was to be built on was zoned, R-7. It was an uncommon designation for lots in the neighborhood more than a block away from Lincoln Avenue, yet it meant that the city’s planning department had no legal grounds for denying a building permit.

“It wasn’t something that was anticipated, but it was allowed under the zoning laws at that time,” said Community Development Director Libby Tyler.

The City Council changed the law in February to make it more difficult for houses to be torn down and converted into parking lots. Future parking lots in residential areas would require a special use permit, which means that a parking lot plan would need a public hearing and the City Council’s approval.

“It (a parking lot mixed in with houses) gives a commercial appearance and feel, and that’s what people don’t want to see,” said Esther Patt, who was also an alderwoman at the time the ordinance passed.