Smile Politely

Developers and citizens face off over Urbana development

Developer Vows “Full Steam Ahead” For Lincoln Plaza Development.

A local developer has vowed to continue pressing its proposal for a $12 million, five-story apartment complex on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Nevada in Urbana, despite the plan running into heavy opposition from neighboring residents and skepticism from members of Urbana’s Planning Commission at a standing-room only meeting of the panel last Thursday night.

The development is “not a dead deal,” said Brian Hannon, a broker with Green Street Realty, the largest residential property manager in central Illinois, which is leading the consortium behind the project. After what he called some second-guessing on pursuing approval following the feedback from officials at the meeting, the group has decided to indeed move “full steam ahead,” Hannon said Sunday.

The property in question is currently occupied by four group houses, one leased as a single unit and the others leased as multi-unit apartments or duplexes. Under the project plan as submitted, the four buildings would face demolition as soon as the end of current August leases to clear the way for construction of the 79-unit complex, which would total 117 bedrooms over 65,566 square feet of floor space.

The group submitted the project to the city under a Planned Unit Development (PUD) proposal, a vehicle Urbana’s website describes as designed to “encourage development that goes beyond the minimum zoning and development standards in terms of design, public amenities, innovative ‘green’ construction and implementation of the Comprehensive Plan.” Under the PUD, the proposal seeks four waivers for: floor area, building height, open space ratio, and front yard setback. In return for such variances, developers are expected to provide public amenities, which in this case, is headlined by the plan’s 4,000 square foot public plaza along Lincoln Avenue.

Planning commission members at the Thursday meeting had largely suggested they could not support the proposal in its current form.

“I can’t support this. The building is too big,” said Commission Chair Tyler Fitch. “I don’t see anything here other than an attempt to circumvent the zoning,” added Commissioner Donnie Otto, who contended the proposal went beyond seeking variances and amounted to applying for outright waivers for a building that should fall into a significantly higher zoning designation. Officials also suggested that the public amenities proposed in exchange – led by the plaza and also including more bike parking and a larger setback – are underwhelming when compared to the scale of the sought variances.

However, officials also expressed that the 0.63 acre plot is a prime location for some manner of higher-density building under the long-term vision for the city, setting the stage for what could evolve into an extended battle over development of the parcel – and its implications for wider West Urbana. Officials Thursday opted against handing down a recommendation on the proposal and voted for a continuance, pushing further deliberation to their upcoming June 9 meeting.

Neighbors Staunchly Opposed.

The renewed pledge by developers will come as unwelcome news to the near score of residents at the Thursday meeting who spoke against the proposal. Many levied impassioned pleas that the scale of the building is incompatible with those in the Busey-Lincoln corridor of West Urbana and would create a precedent allowing for more large projects that bending the limits of current zoning laws, which they maintain would threaten the character of the neighborhood and the wider long-term vision for the area laid out in Urbana’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan. That general overarching concern was buttressed by specific fears about the development’s implications for neighboring property values and other issues like traffic and parking.

A neighbor residing on Nevada St., Maryalice Wu, captured the general sentiment of other community members in a letter to the commission opposing the proposal. The “megaproject,” she wrote, represents “the antithesis to the vision for the area laid out in the comprehensive plan,” and if approved would “do irreversible harm to the character of the neighborhood.”

Saying the proposal would invite “whale-like, metastasizing buildings that are completely incongruous with the existing neighborhood,” Michael Plewa, a longtime West Urbana resident, pointed to what he cast as the Comprehensive Plan’s apparent protections against such developments. According to the comprehensive plan, officials should “[e]nsure that the site design for new development in established neighborhoods is compatible with the built fabric of that neighborhood.”

To underscore that uniqueness and the historic character of West Urbana, several residents, including Plewa, pointed to the American Planning Association naming the neighborhood one of its “Great Places in America” in 2007. The APA, in its announcement posted on its website, highlighted how the area has “maintained its unique neighborhood identity for more than a century, refusing to succumb to the pressures of high-density development.”

Others have launched a campaign against development from yet another angle, pushing to designate 804 S Lincoln as a historically-significant landmark. The current student residents of the century-old Tudor style home submitted an application to the city for such protective status, which would shield the property from demolition. In their application, they cite the house’s longtime (1914-1944) occupant Professor William Trelease, namesake of Trelease Residence Hall and Trelease Woods, as well as the architecture’s similarity to other significant Urbana buildings from the period, such as the Urbana Landmark Hotel.

Others contended that allowing the project to move forward would open the gates to the encroachment of high-rise development characteristic of Champaign into Urbana. “If you have a building that fits the ethos of Champaign, build it in Champaign,” said resident Russell Dietrich.

Residents contended the fallout from an approval would indeed stretch far behind the one site in question. Wu in her remarks argued that allowing the project to go forward may represent “the first domino to fall in the destruction of our neighborhood.” Liz Cardman, another resident, echoed that assessment. “Tonight, you’re not just deciding on this application, but you’re determining the future of West Urbana,” she said, going on to show a slide of a map of locations in which she said “more PUD empires loom where investors have bought multiple adjoining properties,” foreseeably to anticipate denser development. “Tipping points happen,” she added. 

Officials Say Door Open For Development.

Although city officials appeared to side with residents in suggesting the proposal as presented falls too far out of bounds for current zoning, officials did indicate the parcels in question are well situated for some degree of greater development.

“Urbana needs to get denser. The question is how it gets denser. And this is a prime location for development,” said commissioner David Trail. Chairman David Finch appeared to share that assessment, saying that while the project as proposed is too large, the “community could benefit from reasonable development.”

City planning staff’s summary of findings on the proposal suggests the plan, while requiring variances, aligns with the longer-term vision for the area. “The proposed development is generally consistent with the goals of a PUD” and “is generally consistent with the goals, objectives, and future land use in the 2005 Comprehensive Plan,” the report said.

If members of the planning board keep the door open for such higher-density development on the site, but hold their ground on this particular proposed scale exceeding allowable zoning flexibility, the debate going forward will likely focus on just how far the developer will have to downsize plans from this high-water mark to win approval.

Commissioner Lew Hopkins said only allowing development by right, which would constrain the project to within the limits of current zoning, would not be “inherently better” than allowing more leeway through development under PUD. “My inclination would be to initiate the procedure to keep the PUD process open, but to give strong feedback as to what the city wants,” he suggested.

Commissioner Otto said that the “Issue of whether to proceed with PUD should be separated from what we want to achieve.” He suggested that some of the next steps should have the aim of “narrowing down questions in the right direction.”  
Developer Stresses Benefits For City.

Saying Urbana is both struggling to attract new development and facing continuing fiscal struggles, Green Street Realty President Saunders, in his remarks to the panel, pointed to permitting PUD variances at the site as a solution to both those problems for the city. He equated the tax benefits of the project to the construction of 50 single family homes priced at $200,000.

Saunders also explained how the large scale would make feasible costly infrastructure features like the project’s $2.5 million for below-ground parking – the sort of expenditure he said would become uneconomical if the project is forced to downsize.

Hannon, the Green Street Realty broker, contended that the city has sent mixed signals in its search for new development, courting developers with incentives only to then “turn their nose up to” eventual actual proposals by denying variance applications or granting historical protections to circumvent normal channels.

Given what he called the “geographic challenges” of development in Urbana with so much land occupied by the tax-exempt university and hospital, and surrounded by farmland, Hannon, describing Lincoln Square as a prime “opportunity to do infill redevelopment on a main corridor as close to campus as you can get,” wondered where exactly officials are looking to welcome higher-density projects discussed in the comprehensive plan if not in such a location.

Labyrinth To Approval.

With the developer expressing commitment to pursuing the project, a long process of deliberation likely looms before a decision on this or an eventual modified proposal. Not only must the project win approval from the plan commission and city council – each a high hurdle by itself, if Thursday’s meeting is any indication — but also pass the added muster of the Design Review Board since the property sits within the Busey-Lincoln Corridor, a specially-designated one-block wide area between the two streets.

With the zone’s proximity to campus and resulting susceptibility to higher development interest, the designation and added layer of review are intended to “ensure future growth is compatible with the existing build environment of the corridor,” according to the city’s documentation.

The Design Review Board was originally scheduled to deliberate on the proposal during a June 1 meeting, but with the plan commission not handing down a recommendation Thursday, that meeting has been postponed, according to planning administrative assistant Teri Andel in a phone call.

If no further adjustments occur, the next scheduled hearing in the process will take place when the plan commission meets again on June 5. If the last meeting was any indication of interest, expect a large turnout by both residents and members of the developer’s team and their allies, with each side likely bringing more finely-tuned arguments to the table. If the development team indeed sticks to its pledge to push forward with the general design, the most telling revelation at the meeting may be whether the team adjusts its plans in response to concerns raised last week, and if so, by how much.

The response to modifications, if any, presented next week should serve as a good barometer for officials’ openness to some sort of zoning flexibility hinted at last week. If one believes the residents of the area, the fate of the neighborhood — and character of wider West Urbana — may hang in the balance with that reception.

More Articles