Urbana council OKs deal with developer to demolish house

Urbana council OKs deal with developer to demolish house

Council avoids courtroom by settling on rooming house in historic district

URBANA – Who says you can't fight city hall?

When the city's historic preservation commission and then the city council voted last summer to deny developer Howard Wakeland the right to tear down an old rooming house he owned in a historic district on West Main Street, he took the dispute to court.

On Monday night, rather than continue to litigate, the city council voted unanimously to authorize Mayor Laurel Prussing to sign a settlement agreement with Wakeland. It will let him tear down the century-old house at 809 W. Main St. in return for a few concessions about the design and materials used in a new house Wakeland is planning for the same location.

Wakeland didn't attend the meeting, and he wasn't gloating when reached at home by telephone.

"I'm going to keep my mouth shut," he said.

City Attorney Ronald O'Neal said the new house will have natural siding instead of vinyl and that the house will have an elevated, covered porch with rails. The city agreed to allow a four-car garage.

"We settled because there are times when the time and cost of litigation exceeds what you could possibly gain," O'Neal said. "Rather than leave it to the vicissitudes of court, we decided to try and get some of the things we wanted."

Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5, said he could live with the settlement because "Howard will build a house with quality materials and reflect in a more accurate manner the historic design of the neighborhood.

"It's a significant improvement on what he originally proposed."

The new house will have four bedrooms and will be leased to tenants. Wakeland is a major apartment owner and developer in Urbana.

Prussing called the settlement "an amicable solution."

In the future, she said the city would take steps to make sure the historic preservation commission and other city bodies, including the city council, are following proper procedure "so we can avoid these kinds of problems."

The historic preservation commission voted 6-0 in April to deny Wakeland a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the house. He then sought a certificate of economic hardship from the commission, arguing that the costs of remodeling would exceed new construction and that the rooming house had a bad foundation, an outdated electrical system, uneven floors and inadequate plumbing. The commission voted 5-1 in May to deny that certificate.

The city council voted 4-3 on July 7 to uphold those denials, prompting Wakeland to file suit in Champaign County Circuit Court.