News Local/State

‘The Yards’ Downtown Development Clears Hurdle At Champaign City Council Study Session

Artist's rendering of "The Yards", a development proposed for downtown Champaign.

Artist's rendering of "The Yards", a $250 million development that would add a U of I sports arena (including hockey), hotel, apartments, convention center and an enlarged Illinois Terminal Building to downtown Champaign. City of Champaign

Champaign City Council members indicated in a study session Tuesday night that they’re ready to commit future tax revenue to help a quarter billion downtown project known as “The Yards”.

Council members voted 7 to 2 to direct city staff to continue negotiations with developers of the project, to be reviewed at a future study session.

The Yards” would include an a multi-sports arena including an ice surface for a proposed U of I Division One hockey team, a convention center, a hotel, apartments, expansion of the Illinois Terminal building, and parking structures.. But some questions --- and complaints --- remain.

A map showing where "The Yards" development would be located in downtown Champaign.

Photo Credit: City of Champaign

Developers Brian Neiswender, Marc Lifshin and Hans Grotelueschen are working together on the $250 million project. “The Yards” would use nearly 11 acres of land in what was Champaign’s original industrial district, located south of University Avenue. The site includes parking lots currently used by Christie Clinic employees, and now-vacant buildings that for many years housed the Goodyear Twin City Tire Co., and the Rogards office supply store.

New tax revenue generated by the downtown project through the city’s Downtown Fringe tax increment financing district would help pay back the city of Champaign for its $35 million in assistance over two decades. Other downtown Champaign hotels --- including the one at “The Yards” and another projected to be built at 401 N. Neil Street --- would contribute through a new hotel-motel tax imposed in a special Business Development District.

But some of the city funding would reach developers early, in the form of bonds issued by the city to finance the building of the parking structures and also new sanitary sewers to serve both the new development and other buildings in the area.

That didn’t sit well with residents of the infrastructure-poor Garden Hills neighborhood, which isn’t expected to get its long-sought new storm sewers, streetlights and sidewalks until 2030. Two neighborhood activists, Chad Smith and Amy Revilla, told council members they didn’t appreciate waiting while the new downtown development was seemingly given priority. Another Garden Hills resident who complained was First District council member Clarissa Nickerson Fourman.

“So we issue bonds to improve the quality of life for people in downtown Champaign for development, but we don’t for people who live here and reside here,” said Fourman. “Interesting.”

In the project’s defense, at-large councilman Tom Bruno said “The Yards” would generate tax revenue beyond its own infrastructure needs --- revenue that could help Garden Hills and other Champaign neighborhoods.

“We now have a convention center, office center, retail space and housing that we didn’t have before,” said Bruno, outlining the main features that would be constructed as part of “The Yards”. “And all of that generates economic activity which goes to pay for plowing the snow, picking up the leaves, stormwater detention projects and everything else.”

Council members voiced other concerns about “The Yards” project, including whether the area could handle the expected increase in traffic, whether the parking structures would be enough to handle the project’s parking needs, and whether the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics would actually commit to establishing a Division One hockey team that would play at the proposed new ice arena. No DIA officials were present at the study session, which drew pointed remarks from some council members and audience members.

But “The Yards” does have the confirmed support of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which owns the Illinois Terminal building. Transit District board members at an April 15 meeting voted to contribute about $25 million to the project. The money is expected to come mostly from federal grants which the MTD is still in the process of applying for.

Hans Grotelueschen, one of the developers for “The Yards”, says he expects to answer many of the questions raised at Tuesday night’s study session at the next city council study session on the project. He says his hope is to start construction on the development later this year, with completion in the latter half of 2021.