In Champaign, A Neighborhood Is Being Torn Down In Hopes Of Rebuilding And Rebirth
On the north side of Champaign, a seven-block section of residential neighborhood is being torn down. City officials say all of the old houses that made up Bristol Place will be gone by the end of the year, to be replaced by entirely new housing --- and, they hope, better living conditions.
Bristol Place has had a bad reputation. The neighborhood at the corner of Bradley Avenue and Market Street is a place where two streets were limited to one-way traffic for many years, a move meant to discourage people from coming in to find drugs and prostitutes. Its homes were mostly older rental properties, described by the city as “housing of last resort”, lived in by people with few other housing options, due to poor credit or rent histories.
Former Champaign City Councilwoman Karen Foster remembers making food deliveries to some Bristol Place residents for a local charity, and how she “personally saw some of the conditions of the homes in that neighborhood.”
“And I felt that those residents, even though that may be where their home was, they were unsafe. It was not a safe condition to live in”, said Foster.
Foster now chairs a steering committee under Champaign’s Neighborhood Services Department that offers input as the city of Champaign and the Housing Authority of Champaign County prepare to replace the old Bristol Place neighborhood with an entirely new development.
On a recent hot summer day, steering committee members took a field trip, visiting various housing developments around Champaign to study design features that might be used in the new Bristol Place.
“We’re going to check out mailboxes, hold back your enthusiasm!” Champaign Neighborhood Programs Manager Kerri Wiman said, to laughter from the steering committee members.
The field trip to look at cluster mailboxes and water detention features took steering committee members up Market Street and right past Bristol Place, where many properties have already been demolished.
“It’s going to be a landmark once they get done with it”, remarked steering committee member Anthony Howell, a lifelong resident of the Beardsley Park neighborhood, and president of its neighborhood association. Beardsley Park is just southwest of Bristol Place. Howell says he had his doubts about whether Bristol Place residents would be treated fairly by the city, but he believes they’re acting in good faith, and he’s looking forward to the new development.
“I think it’s going to be a nice area, that everybody can enjoy” said Howell. “If the people that moved out want to come back, I think they’ll be alright over there.”
Not everyone shares Howell’s optimism. Terry Townsend is a former Housing Authority board member, a longtime local civil rights activist, and a longtime critic of the Bristol Place project.
Townsend grew up in Champaign’s old Oak-Ash neighborhood, located between 4th Street and the Illinois Central (now Canadian National) railroad tracks on Champaign’s north side. The neighborhood was torn down in the 1980s (when Townsend was a teen-ager) to make way for the Martin Luther King Jr. Subdivision.
The MLK subdivision is the last previous instance in Champaign-Urbana of a neighborhood that was not public or subsidized housing being cleared out for urban renewal. But Townsend says the transformation of Oak-Ash to the Martin Luther King Jr. Subdivision was different from what’s being done at Bristol Place. He says the housing at Oak-Ash was in much worse condition, more of it was owner-occupied --- meaning the occupants were paid for the sale of their homes --- and the replacement of old homes with new ones was done gradually instead of all at once.
In 2012, while it was still in its planning stages, Townsend tried to organize opposition to the Bristol Place project among neighborhood residents, who were being offered money to sell their homes, or housing vouchers to move out of rental properties.
“So I met with several residents”, said Townsend, “and they had asked me to back down. Because they needed the money, and they just were sick and tired of fighting the city. So I did.”
Townsend gave up his campaign against tearing down Bristol Place. But he still believes the reports of crime and poor housing conditions in the neighborhood were exaggerated, and that the project amounts to breaking up a settled minority neighborhood for gentrification.
“We’re at danger of using eminent domain and public works to remove and gentrify what appears to be the historical African-American community”, said Townsend. “Once you gentrify that neighborhood where do those people go. They haven’t answered that.”
Eminent domain --- when property-owners are compelled by authorities to sell their properties for public projects --- has been invoked for just a handful properties in Bristol Place. And Champaign Neighborhood Programs Manager Kerri Wiman --- you heard her earlier leading the steering committee field trip. --- says they would only compel residents and property owners to leave a neighborhood when conditions are really bad and unlikely to get better.
“Any neighborhood, if we start seeing some of these same challenges, we hope that we can help turn that around before we get to that point”, said Wiman, who adds that in the case of Bristol Place, ”it was not a proud moment to ask for eminent domain. This is a difficult area to be in, and so we don’t take that lightly.”
Work on relocating the 130 or so residents of Bristol Place has been underway for some time. Wiman says the city provided extra assistance to help people move out of the neighborhood into homes that frequently commanded higher prices, due to Bristol Place’s falling property values. And she says those who move back to the new Bristol Place when it’s built, will find rent subsidies available for most units and a promise from the developer, Jim Roberts with AHDVS LLC, of a rent-to-own program that could turn tenants into homeowners in 15 years.
And that is when the real test could begin for Bristol Place. Can the area remain free of crime and blight over the long haul, once it’s no longer owned and overseen by government agencies? Anthony Howell from Beardsley Park says yes, if residents are ready to work at it.
“Everybody need to come together and keep their neighborhood free of crime”, said Howell. “You got to work together. I know a lot of people say they don’t want to work with the police and things like that. But if you want your area to be safe, you got to be instrumental in making your neighborhood safe. You’ve got to be out there and don’t be afraid to open your mouth.”
The old Bristol Place is being torn down right now. But funding to build the new Bristol Place is not assured. It depends on the city winning federal grants and state tax credits that it applied for just a few weeks ago. There is competition for that financial aid. And Kerri Wiman says Champaign city officials won’t know until the fall if they have won the funding. If they have not, seven vacant blocks where Bristol Place once stood, will have to wait a year for another chance at redevelopment.