Residents, neighbors offer input on Orchard Downs

Residents, neighbors offer input on Orchard Downs

URBANA – Toddlers learning to swing, students weeding vegetable gardens, the aroma of Indian curry or Korean barbecue wafting through the air.

And don't forget the sight of a wild turkey or two roosting in a tree.

That's just a sample of what neighbors and residents told potential developers they like about Orchard Downs.

In other words, developers, don't chop down those mature oak or evergreen trees. Don't turn Race Street into a shopping center. Don't build tall buildings. Use sustainable, environmentally friendly construction material and building practices. Be sure to add affordable housing for students who come from all over the world.

Currently home to international, family and graduate students at the University of Illinois, Orchard Downs is south of the main campus. The UI's strategic plan calls for redeveloping the 160-acre site, located south of Florida Avenue, north of Windsor Road, west of Race Street and east of the UI Arboretum.

The UI calls for making Orchard Downs into an intergenerational community, with a mix of housing such as single-family homes and condominiums, as well as retail and commercial space. It would also be home to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for mature adults.

Several developers are competing for the job. And the UI invited residents and neighbors to share their opinions about the property with the developers Wednesday evening.

Plenty of community members took the UI up on the offer.

Speakers urged developers to upgrade recreation paths for biking, jogging and strolling. They called for creating safe play areas for children. They said they want the UI to maintain the rich, cultural diversity of Orchard Downs. They want UI faculty and staff to be able to share their expertise with the developers. They want the green space along Florida Avenue and Race Street maintained.

The sledding hill? Keep it! they said.

Neighbors, former neighbors, current and retired UI faculty members, former Orchard Downs residents and a handful of current residents all had their time in front of a microphone.

At the beginning of the public comment period, Diane Marlin said the redevelopment was one of the most exciting things in Urbana in decades. But she urged the developers, "Keep the Orchard in Orchard Downs."

At the tail end of the evening, UI graduate student and current Orchard Downs resident Eric Harbeson added: "Please keep the orchard and the student in Orchard Downs."

Harbeson lives at the southern edge of the property. When he steps outside his apartment, he sees green, followed by farm fields, followed by the horizon.

"I really value that," he said.

Fellow graduate student Ingbert Floyd said among the many things he loves about living in Orchard Downs is the diversity among residents. He called attention to the fact that the meeting was held away from Orchard Downs – at the Carle Forum in north Urbana – and said those involved in redevelopment should go to Orchard Downs and talk to people who live there.

Urbana resident Mary Ellen O'Shaughnessy called Orchard Downs "community at its best." She said she supported housing for international and graduate students and said diversity is more than about race and gender, but also about economic class.

"When I read the material (provided by the UI to community members), I don't see much economic diversity," she said.

The purpose of the meeting was to allow community members to share their ideas with developers, said Fred Coleman, director of capital administration for Orchard Downs.

"If the developers come to the meeting in January with marginal housing for family and international students with no basis for that marginal number and the community has spoken on that, then that would be a real problem for developers," Coleman said.

Included in the UI's Request for a Proposal provided to developers is information from a 2004 study on redeveloping Orchard Downs. A consultant hired by the UI outlined three options for the property. One option calls for setting aside 60 acres for family and graduate housing (with a combination of new and renovated housing for family and grad students) and 60 to 80 acres for private development.

The second option calls for all new housing for family and graduate housing and 100 acres for private development.

The third option is for the entire 160 acres to be set aside for private development and for the family and graduate housing to be located on an alternate site.

Earlier this summer, the university awarded several contracts totaling $525,000 to five developers. Each company will put together a plan for redeveloping Orchard Downs. The UI will own those plans after they are submitted.

Developers will present their preliminary plans to the public at another forum on Jan. 25, 2007. Final proposals are due Feb. 13. The final plans will be presented to the public at a forum Feb. 19. The UI expects to choose a developer in spring 2007.

Looking ahead

Where: 160-acre site south of the University of Illinois' central campus. The property is south of Florida Avenue, north of Windsor Road and west of Race Street in Urbana. It's east of the UI Arboretum and the UI president's house.

What: Orchard Downs is currently home to international, graduate and family housing, but the UI is considering building an intergenerational development there. It could include a mix of single-family homes, condominiums, and retail and commercial space.

What next: Developers will present plans to the public at another forum on Jan. 25. The five developers chosen by the UI are to submit final proposals Feb. 13. The final plans will be presented to the public at a Feb. 19 forum.

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