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Some takeaways from Examine Urbana

A view down a wide street at dusk, with buildings lining either side. Streetlights are on, and some of the buildings have string lights on their facades.
Sam Logan

Last week, the City of Urbana announced the next phase in the process of developing a new comprehensive plan. The last comprehensive plan was put out in 2005, so an update is due. Examine Urbana follows Imagine Urbana, the first phase of the project, which invited community members to envision the sort of city they’d like to see in the next five to ten years. We offered our thoughts as well, at least for what we’d like to see in Downtown Urbana.

Examine Urbana is more of an informational and reflective phase. As the website points out, it’s not meant to showcase the results from input gathered during the Imagine Urbana phase (which if you’re curious, can be found here), nor does it address every little piece of information that there is to know about Urbana. Instead, with topics organized in chapters, it is a look at the different aspects of city life that a new comprehensive plan will address. You’ll find Development and Taxes, Transportation, Arts and Culture, Housing, Energy and the Environment, and Health and Safety. According to the website, the Examine Urbana has a three-fold purpose:

  • Provide an introduction to Comprehensive Plan-related issues
  • Focus on data and information that is from Urbana and the people who make up Urbana
  • Briefly touch on some misconceptions and issues to consider with the Comprehensive Plan.

We did a perusal of the site, and we have a few takeaways. It should be noted that there is much more to be mined from this site beyond these musings, but we can only cover so much in one article. If you are really interested in nerding out about the past, present, and future of Urbana, it’s worth spending some time browsing the site.

A Comprehensive Plan, while comprehensive, doesn’t necessarily do much on its own

It’s up to city officials to make  a concerted effort to turn the ideals of the plan into policy, as the plan itself is not binding. The plan is only meant to “guide the City by providing a vision and policy direction for the next 10 to 20 years.” The last plan was adopted in 2005, and the one before that was adopted in 1982. The Examine Urbana site indicates that there have been no solid structures in place to evaluate or study the previous plan, and that “Some of the most substantive parts of the 2005 Comprehensive Plan were never enacted.” Of course any plan requires quite a bit of prognosticating, and we can never totally predict whether trends are going to continue. Certainly none of us were prepared for a global pandemic. However, with the amount of time and energy devoted to coming up with such a plan, it seems that having a framework for regular evaluation and updating is crucial. The city is planning to evaluate and update the new comprehensive plan every two years.

There have been some significant successes that have been born out of the 2005 plan

The Arts and Culture Program was created as a result of goals identified in the 2005 plan. We’ve certainly extolled the virtues of a public arts commission, as a component of the City’s annual budget (and the lack of such an equivalent in Champaign). The Boneyard Creek Crossing project was completed. The city created the Southeast Urbana Design Overlay to focus on quality of life issues in the Silverwood neighborhood. 

The population is trending older, and shrinking

Though the median age of Urbana residents is 25 — not surprising when you consider the impact of University of Illinois,  those younger age groups are shrinking and the number of people aged 60-79 is increasing. That, coupled with a decrease in population, isn’t great when looking ahead to the future. As the site’s introduction section notes, funding is tied to population. Between 2010 and 2020, Urbana decreased in population while Champaign increased in population. 

Downtown Urbana is almost half parking lots

In the Development and Taxes chapter of the Examine Urbana site, you’ll find the map pictured below that illustrates how many buildings have been demolished in Downtown Urbana, and how many are now parking lots. What a waste of usable space! The map indicates that 44% of the central business district is covered in parking lots. We talked about the non-issue of parking availability in Downtown Urbana when Rose Bowl Tavern licensed use of half the city lot outside the establishment for continued outdoor shows. You know what would be a great use of some of those parking lots? More green space

A solid majority of Urbana residents are renters

According to the Housing chapter, two out of three housing units in Urbana are rentals. In addition, 40% of housing units are too expensive, with housing costs consuming more than 30% of the occupant’s income. This is especially prevalent with renters, 60% of whom are paying too much for their housing. Less than 30% of African American and Asian residents own their homes, compared to over 60% of Latino and white residents. How will the new comprehensive plan examine and address these statistics? In the “Future Considerations” section of this chapter, they are asking questions such as: “What affordable housing strategies make the most sense for Urbana? Where should that housing be available? How can we continue to reverse historic discrimination in the housing market? Are Urbana’s zoning regulations reflective of our current priorities for housing? How can housing development be incentivized in ways that limit sprawl and make more efficient use of City infrastructure?”

Everyone who lives and works in Urbana is a community stakeholder. Everyone who patronizes Urbana businesses is a community stakeholder. Examine Urbana is a site worth engaging with if you have the time. It really does a good job of detailing the history of the city, acknowledging some of the negatives and shortfalls, while also doing a bit of cheerleading for what the city is getting right. Be on the lookout for more opportunities to offer input to the city as this process of developing a comprehensive plan continues. 
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Mara Thacker.

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