Big Development Leaves a Gap in Champaign-Urbana
By Jim Meadows
One marker of the economic slow-down in Champaign-Urbana was when the big development projects stopped. Development has never completely stopped in Champaign-Urbana. But announcements of the really big projects --- ones that expand the borders of the two cities --- pretty much came to an end with the bursting of the housing bubble.
On the northwest edge of Champaign, signs advertising Clearview can be seen from the interstate.The development covers more than 500 acres --- dominated by Legacy Drive.
This week, Clearview was added to a list of land parcels the Champaign school district is considering as a site for a new high school.
Any high school would have plenty of room to stretch out because more than five years after its launch, Clearview still has no buildings.
“Clearview, you know, was based on the concept of some major new employers. The infrastructure is all in place and ready to go,” Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight said. “But, I don’t think there been companies making the leap to build big new facilities.”
Knight and other local officials are quick to note that compared to the worst years of the recession, new development in Champaign-Urbana is actually on the rise, from new single family homes and apartment buildings to a new hotel going up in downtown Champaign. But they say the new construction now is nothing like the phenomenal growth that Champaign-Urbana saw in the pre-recession years, when the land area and population of both cities increased by double-digit percentage points.
Urbana’s Community Development Director Libby Tyler thinks more new development is coming, but not at that level.
“But we may not see that point in time when we had all the cranes on the horizon, you know, six or eight in the two cities,” Tyler said. “That was probably an historic moment when that occurred.”
That was around 2006 and 2007.
Tyler said she would be happy to see the more modest growth levels of 2003 and 2004.
But a question that still linger is how Champaign-Urbana could set the stage for a revival of that level of new development.
John Dimit, who just retired after a stint as president of the Champaign Economic Development Corporation, said the most visible construction projects --- housing and retail stores --- rely on bringing or creating new jobs in the area --- jobs that bring in new people and new income.
“Once that occurs, then there’ll be the demand for additional retail outlets,” Dimit said. “There’ll be the demand for additional restaurants, additional services. And you know, it begins to feed upon itself. It’s that multiplier effect --- that for every base job that we create, creates three to as many as six others in the community.”
Meanwhile, local developer Peter Fox said those new jobs need to pay well --- well enough so that employees can afford to buy new homes and support new retail outlets.
Fox said he has tried to attract those jobs through his work with the Atkins Group in developing the University of Illinois Research Park. But only 1,600 people work at the research park right now. Fox said his goal is more like 5,000.
“You know, you have, what, 4-to-5,000 students over at the College of Engineering,” Fox said. “Virtually every one of those students each year will be offered a job that pays double to triple what the average wage is in Champaign-Urbana. If we could find a mechanism to retain a third of those each year, that would make a huge difference.”
Fox said college towns that have grown the jobs that spur new development are areas with strong political leadership --- often made possible by metro areas where city and county government are merged into a single entity --- something which doesn’t exist in Champaign-Urbana.
Fox hopes that the University of Illinois could fill the void.
“If the chancellor or the president would remain in place for a decade and would put the full resources of the university behind an effort that made sense,” he said. “We could attract another 5,000 jobs every easily.”
If the number of new jobs has fluctuated in Champaign-Urbana over the years, the number of students at the University of Illinois has continued to grow. That means student housing has been relatively immune from the cutback in new development projects.
But again, they’re not the sort of projects that expand Champaign-Urbana boundaries. Instead, several apartment buildings ---- a couple with more than 20 stories --- have been built close to the U of I campus in recent years.
JSM Management owns several of those buildings. Their director of development, Jill Guth, said other developers have built student housing farther away --- but she says those developers don’t really know the territory.
“Some of these outside companies have seen success in that model of remote apartments in other communities, like Austin, Texas, and tried to do that here, and it just has not worked here,” Guth said. “Our students that live with us have said they want to live as close to the campus as they can, as close to the Campustown area where you have all the restaurants and bars and shops and all those kind of things.”
So, the new development in Champaign-Urbana nowadays may be big, but not super-big. Champaign-0urbana is not seeing much in this way of boundary-expanding multi-aces developments, but local officials say every project helps.