Clark Park Neighborhood Organizes Against “Giant Houses”

 
"No Giant Houses" sign in the front yard of a home in Champaign's Clark Park neighborhood.

A home in Champaign's Clark Park neighborhood, with a sign in the front yard protesting against construction of "giant houses"

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Champaign-Urbana has seen a bit of a building boom in the last couple of years, leading city officials to revise their zoning rules. But some residents worry that that new buildings will change the character of their neighborhoods.

A debate over zoning rules for new buildings is playing out now in Champaign’s Clark Park neighborhood. Residents of Clark Park like their smallish homes built on lots subdivided more than a century ago, that are often just 50 or 60 feet wide. Many Clark Park residents think those small lots contribute to a sense of neighborliness. One resident, Allan Tuchman, says the average Clark Park house has an area of 1,400 feet. He didn’t like it when a much bigger new home went up on his block, with a front that was dominated by a big garage door.

“I walk down the street and I can wave to all my neighbors,” said Tuchman. “Their living rooms face the street, their front porches face the street or the sidewalks, I can wave to everybody. These new houses, all you see when you walk by is a garage. There’s people who drive into the garage, close the door, go into their house. You never see them.”

Concern about bigger houses coming to Clark Park’s smaller lots is what brought Tuchman and several dozen other residents of the neighborhood to a meeting with city officials on July 30 at the Champaign Public Library. They had already given a cold reception last January to proposed new zoning rules on how big those houses could be. Now they were back to hear a new proposal. Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said the goal was to set up orderly rules allowing houses to be bigger, but not too big.

“I think the intent was to focus on kind of proportionality and how the house fits into the neighborhood,” said Knight, “and try and design a regulation that creates something more compatible that way, not necessarily limiting the square footage that can be built.”

It turned out to be a contentious meeting, with the city’s new proposal meeting as much resistance from Clark Park residence as the earlier one did when it was unveiled last winter.

The earlier proposal would have allowed for larger houses on narrow lots by adjusting a formula called the Floor Area Ratio, or FAR. The new proposal outlined at the July 30 meeting would replace the FAR with a Lot Coverage standard, based on the percentage of a house lot taken up by a house, not counting any detached buildings.

But Clark Park residents still complained that the Lot Coverage standard could allow for houses they think are too big for their neighborhood --- up to 6,000 square feet in some cases.

Long-time Clark Park resident Mike Reed said the city was writing the zoning rules to fit zoning districts, at the expense of neighborhoods and their unique characteristics.

“You come into a city that has developed over 150 years, and you have very different pockets of neighborhoods, to think that that one characteristic of the lot size can tie together the way you’re going to treat, them, I think, is unrealistic”, said Reed. “You’re going to have to treat those different areas separately.”

Reed says a couple of developers have driven a recent upsurge in new construction in Clark Park.

”They’re less interested in the neighborhood as it stands, and they’re more interested in reimagining that neighborhood in another model", said Reed. "And this is the city’s opportunity to step in and exert their authority to say, wait, there is something special here. It’s not just the location.”

Reed and Allan Tuchman belong to the Clark Park Steering Committee, a group formed after the city made its initial zoning proposal last winter. Their website, nogianthouses.com, calls for the creation of a special Clark Park conservation district, one which would bar “giant houses” from being built in the neighborhood, no matter what zoning rules would allow.

But some in Clark Park say the neighborhood would benefit from new zoning rules, not to allow giant houses, but to allow house sizes to expand more modestly. Laura Dees says she and her husband want to be able to move the garage at their Clark Park home a little closer to the property line, to make more room in the backyard. 

“I agree with many of the people who spoke — a 6,000 square foot home is a a little excessive for the neighborhood,” said Dees. “So I do agree with them, but I do want more flexibility, where 2,300 square feet — where we have more area that we can go with.”

Dees says she supports a so-called Plan D for setting rules for residential building. That’s the alternative many at least week’s meeting brought up. If the city’s proposals of a new plan, the old plan from last winter and keeping the current regulations are Plans A through C, then a hypothetical Plan D would call on the city of Champaign to work on new regulations, but do so slowly, with lots of input from residents.

“Please, step back, take some more time, involve us more, talk to us a bit more”, said Champaign County Board member Pattsi Petrie, in describing the sentiments voiced by many at the July 30 meeting. “Because a number of people did mention that they have not been brought into the circle of the conversation with the city, up to this point.”

It’s up to the Champaign City Council to decide what to do about the new proposed residential zoning rules. Most city council members attended last week’s public meeting, and they’ll discuss the proposal in a study session during their own meeting on Tuesday night, August 6. That meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Champaign City Building.

Story source: WILL