The changing face of Main Street

By Jenette Sturges

There are no houses left on the 1000 block of Main Street in Urbana. Parts of the sidewalk reveal an old brick path, one of the only remaining hints of the old neighborhood. Every now and then, a resident from past decades drops in to see what became of their childhood home.

In December 2006, Howard Wakeland, an Urbana resident and landlord, bought a permit for the last home, 1003 W. Main St., to be demolished.

As the demand for student housing close to campus increases and many older single-family homes age, land developers are buying the property and replacing houses with small, high-density apartment buildings.

At the Jan. 16 Urbana City Council meeting, some residents, fearing new construction is ruining the character of the city’s older neighborhoods, proposed a temporary halt on demolitions.

“(The Rental Registry Program) will have a negative impact on the historic buildings in my neighborhood and elsewhere in the city,” said Brian Adams, Urbana resident at the meeting. “It is assumed the registry will ensure the maintenance of old buildings. I fear that it will have the opposite effect. The cases of demolition will increase.”

The informal proposal sprang from the city’s adoption of the new Rental Registration Program. The program, which goes into effect on Feb. 16, would require landlords to pay a registration fee with the city that would pay for regular inspections of Urbana rental units.

Many residents addressed the council worried that overzealous inspectors would demand so many improvements in older homes that landlords would instead tear down the houses in favor of new, more profitable apartments.

“I fear that they (landlords) will not go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix up those problems that have existed sometimes for decades,” said Ilona Matkovszki, Urbana resident, at the Jan. 16 city council meeting. “It will be cheaper and more profitable for them to simply tear the buildings down and put up new, ugly, plastic apartment buildings, which has been the practice in the historic heart of residential downtown Urbana.”

Matkovszki proposed that the city instate a moratorium on building demolitions until the procedures for issuing demolition permits is examined.

“Short of that I believe there’s absolutely nothing to prevent the loss of extremely limited stock of historic buildings in Urbana,” she said.

One of the biggest problems that many Urbana residents complained about at the meeting was the lack of warning when houses were going to be demolished. Current city policy requires the permit requests be posted online at the city’s Web site, but neighbors do not receive direct notification.

Next to the vacant lot at 1003 W. Main St., stands 207 N. Gregory Ave., an old single-family home with a couch on the porch and vines growing up the sides of the wooden house.

“I thought someone was coming to work on our roof until I heard the structure (at 1003 W. Main) come crashing down,” Wesley Stickelmaier, a recent graduate and University employee living at 207 N. Gregory Ave., said.

Because of residents’ concerns about the demolitions of older homes, the Urbana City Council is now reviewing city codes concerning demolitions and implementing more ways to advise neighbors of demolitions. The current codes were compiled in an e-mail by Libby Tyler, the city’s community development director and city planner.

According to the e-mail, any home can be demolished by permit, unless it is a landmark or part of one of Urbana’s two historic districts. Even then, a Certificate of Appropriateness or a Certificate of Economic Hardship can be issued allowing a homeowner to demolish their historic home.

The city will be working on a project with the Historic Preservation Commission this year to encourage more nominations of buildings that could be earmarked as historic landmarks.

Stickelmaier’s roommate Brian Rusk, junior at Parkland, said he wanted the house because it was “more private, besides the roommates.”

“You can choose the people you live with,” Stickelmaier said. “You don’t have to worry about the neighbors so much.”

They also said they liked the perks of living in a house, like having more space and their own driveway.

While they enjoy their house, they realize campus area houses are in short supply.

“It makes sense,” said Rusk, “You’re obviously going to make more money with the higher density.”

Although some residents feel that more needs to be done to save these older homes, others feel that is an unrealistic goal.

Wakeland, the owner of the properties under construction on Main Street, described other buildings he’s demolished as “horribly old and dilapidated.”

“We’ve knocked down houses with the basement falling in, one with a big colony of rats in it,” he said. “Some (were) completely open to the weather.”

Wakeland also said that the student population in the west side of Urbana has been capped as developers are limited in the amount of housing they can build because of zoning restrictions.

“There’s a tendency to build places that are one to six miles away from campus that don’t meet the needs of students,” Wakeland said. “Most students want to live within 15, or at least 30, minutes of their classrooms.”