Illinois Public Media News
The Urbana City Council gave the go-ahead Monday night for work on a new bike and walking path along High Cross Road on the city's east end. But the project is now much smaller than first planned.
The problem is the price. The project is now slated to cost a total of 1-point-2 million dollars, nearly twice the price estimate given when the planning was done back in 2005. , An ITEP (IIllinois Transportation Enhancement Program) federal grant is supposed to pay for most of the project. But Urbana Public Works Director Bill Grey says building the entire path at its current price may exceed the limits set by the grant rules. Still, he says scrapping the project and giving the money back would hurt Urbana's changes for landing such grant money in the future.
"I don't want to give you the impression, that if we go with Option Two and put the money back, that we're never going to see an ITEP grant again, so I'm not saying that tonight", says Grey. "I'm just saying it's going to hurt our chances, in competition with other cities, counties, entities that apply for this money. That we're not going to be in quite the same graces. That's all I'm saying."
In the end, the Urbana City Council voted for "Option Five". That calls for building just the southern portion of the multi-use path at this time --- from Windsor Road, past the Stone Creek subdivision, and out to Po' Boys restaurant and sport complex. The path would not make it out to the future Menard's site or to Walmart. With the reduced plan, the city will pay $310, 000 of its own money - instead of the $1.1 million the city would pay for its share of the full project.
Construction of the first development at the I-57 Curtis Road Interchange could begin this fall.
"Wellness at Prairie Village" is to feature a community wellness center, a 50-unit senior living facility, as well as shops office space and residential development. But the only firm commitment at the site is a new Christie Clinic facility. Developer Todd Raufeisen says they're talking to other potential tenants who will want to build next to Christie Clinic.
"Christie is the one that's providing the momentum to get the project started", says Raufeisen. "A lot of the users that we talk to like to be next to hospitals and clinics such as Christie. But as with any development, you got to start with somebody. And Christie's our anchor at the end of the day. They're taking 20 out of the 60s acres for the sake of round numbers. And that's what we'll start around."
Champaign City Council members gave the go-ahead Tuesday night for city staff to continue working with Raufeisen on planning for for Wellness at Prairie Village .
Several council members expressed concerns that the development might contain excessive parking --- they want the site to be more aesthetically pleasing that the retail developments in the North Prospect area.
However, Councilman Tom Bruno added that he was just grateful to see a developer interested in the Curtis Road site.
"But I don't want those concerns about parking at this early stage of discussion about the planning stages of this take the luster off the delight I feel that all of you players are thinking about developing at this location in our community at this time in our economic history", said Bruno.
Raufeisen says Christie Clinic wants to start construction this fall --- he says it could take 5 to 7 years to completely develop the rest of the 60 acre site. Wellness at Prairie Village would take up about one-eighth of the land at the Curtis Road Interchange.
One of those responsible for changing the marquee on Champaign's Virginia Theatre says it needs to be recognized as more than a place for showing movies. Champaign Park District Board member Barbara Kuhl favors replacing the sign to make the theatre look more like a vaudeville house, as it appeared in 1921. Board members voted 3-2 for replacing the marquee that's been there since the 40's. Kuhl also says the current one needed replacing anyway. "The current marquee will be taken down and destroyed. It cannot be refurbished," said Kuhl. "So the question was not 'will there be a new marquee?'... it was just 'what was the shape of the new marquee going to be."
Those favoring the change say a new sign would show off more of the upper-level façade and original architecture. Urban planner Alice Novak says there's no doubt the Virginia is a beautiful building, but argues the park district is changing the most defining feature. Kuhl says the public opposition to changing the sign was blown out of proportion. But Novak says there was an obvious public sentiment for retaining the marquee, and the park district board chose to ignore it. "So I think that's very disappointing," said Novak. "And I don't know what the long-lasting implications of that kind of bad policy will be."
Novak sits on Illinois' Historic Sites Advisory Council, which reviews nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. Park District Board members contend the new marquee won't change that eligibility. But Novak says once the old one comes down - she'll submit photos of the Virginia to the rest of her group to consider a change. Champaign Park District Board President Jane Solon says she initially would have preferred the Virginia's next marquee be a combination of refurbishing the existing one, with features from the original sign's 1921 design. But she says public opposition convinced her that the best marquee was the one currently in place. "You can't marry two periods together and create a new that's not the best thing to do," says Solon. "So from a historical perspective and from what citizens had said they preferred, I then became in favor of keeping the triangle marquee."
Both board members say they hope the marquee change will be done when other renovations to the theater are completed. The Virginia closes next week for upgrades to its entrances and lobby, and re-opens in November. A million dollar bequest from the estate of Michael Carragher is funding that work, while ticket sales and other private donations are paying for the new marquee.
The federal stimulus program was lucrative for the University of Illinois, but less so for government agencies in Champaign County.
A report from the county regional planning commission says more than $162 million in stimulus funding rolled into the county in 2009. But nearly $96 million of that was for the U of I, mainly for research projects according to commission planner Susan Chavarria. $16 million of the total was for infrastructure projects, mostly road construction and improvements.
Chavarria says it's hard to compare whether Champaign County got more or less than other areas of the state or nation. "Smaller communities and smaller counties, they usually don't have the resources to go through the application processes or to take the time to look for the funding sources," Chavarria said. "So in terms of our ability to do that, I think that we have perhaps received more than some of the other downstate counties. For the $546 million that we asked for, our expectations were we'll take what we can get, so I think we've received a fair amount of funding here."
Chavarria says even the U of I assistance indirectly benefits the community in the jobs it ensures for researchers and students. She says stimulus assistance to the county also came in the form of government contracts and business loans.
An ordinance banning outdoor storage of indoor furniture was approved by the Urbana City Council's Committee of the Whole.
The ordinance follows a recent Urbana house fire that left 25 year old Ashley Ames severely burned. The fire started on a front porch couch. Fire Chief Michael Dilley says the ordinance is geared to limit overstuffed furniture such as couches, chairs and mattresses because its a large ignition source.
Dilley says outdoor furniture fires are not an isolated incident in Urbana in past years, and the regulation is not a restriction of one's freedom of choosing a lifestyle.
"We regulate lifestyle every day," Dilley said. "We have codes and ordinances that help people be safe, and this is just another one that over a period of years we've found that it's a problem. We don't just go out and pull something out of thin air. When we start having issues when people die, then we look at them."
Aldermen Dennis Roberts was the only vote in dissent. Roberts says people used to say quote "your home is your castle."
"It's possible, yes, that a fire could start on a porch because of a couch," Roberts told the council. "But does that mean no one should ever have a couch on the porch? I don't think so. I think we have to use common sense, and I think it's a shame that we're trying tro regulate people's styles of living outdoors."
The Urbana City Council will vote on the Ordinance next Monday.
In addition, Mayor Laurel Prussing says that June 8th 2010 has been proclaimed Al Johnston Day in Urbana. The veteran Urbana Police Officer recently retired.
Longtime Champaign neighborhood services employee Mable Thomas, who passed away last month, will likely receive a street named in her honor.
With unanimous preliminary approval from the Champaign City Council, University Avenue from Elm Street to State Street would be designated as Mable Thomas Street. It was chosen because it borders West Side Park, where Thomas was known for organizing the local National Night Out against Crime.
City Councilman Tom Bruno enthusiastically supports this gesture to honor Thomas, based on what he saw of her work in the Neighborhood Services Department. "She would be able to maintain a level of order and courtesy so that people's emotions could cool down a little and they could talk rationally about a grievance they had or a problem," Bruno said. "In that way, she was just really good at what she did. Her passing is a great loss for the city of Champaign."
Thomas' accomplishments included helping to expand the city's Neighborhood Watch Program and creating the Neighborhood Small Grant Program. She helped to organize hundreds of neighborhood groups and was active in many community organizations and activities, including CommUnity Matters and First Street Farmer's Market.
Champaign's City Council is reviewing the next fiscal year's budget and preparing for changes in service levels.
The proposed cuts include eliminating six vacant positions, and reducing public works crews and neighborhood services. City Manager Steve Carter says residents have likely not noticed the cuts so far, but that may not be the case next year. "I think we've done a good job in our reductions so far that I don't think people so far have noticed much of a difference," Carter said. "But I think with this next round of reductions, they'll be starting to see some of that. You know, in each area there's just a little bit of a fall off in terms of the level of service we're providing."
The budget, presented by Carter and Champaign city finance director Richard Schnuer at a study session after Tuesday's city council meeting, includes two-point-five million dollars in spending cuts. These cuts are less than half of the six million dollars cut from last year's budget.
The budget cuts are necessary in part because the city is not expecting any increase in sales or income taxes. Sales tax alone is the largest source of revenue for the city, making up 31% of total revenue, followed by property tax at 24%.
The council will work with the City Manager's office to review the budget in detail this month. A vote to adopt the budget will be in June.
The bicycling community in Champaign-Urbana hopes to start commuters on a new habit Tuesday morning.
"CU Bike to Work Day" has attracted about 500 people who have signed up to receive a t-shirt and pledge to ride their bike instead of drive. Rick Langlois of the group Champaign County Bikes says the group is now out of shirts, but it still expects lots of unregistered riders to take part too.
He says the goal of the event is to encourage more bicyclists to overcome their worries and take to the streets. Langlois says some are concerned about safety, which is why his group advocates bike lanes for a little more peace of mind.
"Bike lanes are very much an effort to assist those less comfortable or average adult riders feel more comfortable," said Langlois. "A bike lane is not a magic force field and it doesn't keep somerone from being struck by a vehicle, but it does designate a space where a bicyclist is expected to be."
But Langlois also reminds drivers that bicyclists also have the right to use a traffic lane in areas without bike lanes.
He says the bike group is also collecting information on bicycle use for planners in Champaign and Urbana as they consider infrastructure in the years ahead.
A planner in Champaign County says response to the 2010 census is slightly better than at this point during the last census two years ago.
But Andrew Levy says census workers will still have to go door-to-door to find and count the 30 percent of people in the county who won't have turned in their forms by the end of this week. Levy says enumerators are already at work in some parts of the county that are usually tougher to count.
"They're focusing in rural areas and they have been out there for quite awhile," Levy said. "In Champaign-Urbana, census workers are concentrated around the U of I campus to make sure that they count the students before they leave for the summer. But they'll be all over Champaign-Urbana in the next few weeks."
Levy says if an enumerator comes to your door, they'll only ask the 10 short questions found on the census form - there's no long census form this year. Census workers are also required to show official identification and will not ask for anyone's social security or credit card number.
The head of the city of Champaign's Neighborhood Services department says a familiar face to neighborhood groups in the city will be missed.
Mable Thomas has been the neighborhood coordinator since the city formed its neighborhood services program in 1992. Thomas died early Tuesday morning in St. Louis after an illness of several months.
Kevin Jackson says Thomas was the main liaison between Champaign's many neighborhood groups and city government, and she was the right person for the job.
"She not only had to have the ability to remain calm and posed in potentially volatile situations, but dealing with a variety of stakeholder interests she had to be a strong-willed person and a very objective person to make sure that the right thing happened," Jackson said.
Champaign mayor Jerry Schweighart says Thomas's loss is a loss to city government and the community. Thomas created a small grant program for neighborhood projects and oversaw Champaign's role in the anti-crime program known as National Night Out.
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