Second time around the block for Orchard Downs
URBANA – Diane Marlin fell in love with Orchard Downs in 1971 when she came to the University of Illinois as an undergraduate.
It was a place for walking and biking along tree-lined paths and past playgrounds, gardens and hills. (Yes, hills. Orchard Downs is home to one of the few sledding hills in Champaign-Urbana.)
More than 35 years later, she lives two blocks from the university's graduate and family housing area, and still loves walking or riding her bike through the area.
"It's in our front yard. People love Orchard Downs. We value the space, and we value the community that lives in Orchard Downs," she said.
The 160-acre parcel, with buildings dating back to 1960, is slated for a major face-lift.
And neighbors have taken notice.
In the last year, conversations among southeast Urbana neighbors have revolved around three issues: Chief Illiniwek; the turkeys that roamed the neighborhood; and redevelopment of Orchard Downs, said Amy Aidman, who lives near Orchard Downs and is an associate dean at the UI College of Communication.
The UI retired Chief Illiniwek in February. The last of the turkeys recently were captured. And the university is closer to finalizing its plans to revitalize Orchard Downs, located between Florida Avenue and Windsor Road in Urbana.
Candidates competing for the job of "master developer" for the new Orchard Downs will submit their proposals to the university by Friday. And come May 2, residents will be able to review the plans and offer feedback.
"The way I see it is we get one chance. If it's going to be developed, it's got to be done in the very best way it can," said Marlin, who works at the UI and is also co-coordinator of the Southeast Urbana Neighborhood Association, a group formed partly in response to keeping an eye on Orchard Downs redevelopment.
In September, the UI board of trustees approved awarding $105,000 to each of four development firms to come up with plans for the parcel. In October, residents and neighbors attended a forum and offered their ideas to developers on what they thought the new Orchard Downs should look like. After a review of the developers' preliminary plans, the UI revised the request for proposals and modified the schedule for public input.
"We started seeing preliminary work, and it became clear to us (the developers) didn't understand we wanted a pretty significant active senior housing component," UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
However, what was encouraging to UI staff "was the initial results showed that developers have been very responsive to issues of landscaping, building heights, energy efficiency and making the area pedestrian friendly," Kaler said.
Developers competing for the job include Broadacre Management Company of Chicago, Devonshire Group of Champaign, Snyder Corporation of Bloomington and a joint effort by Fox Development of Champaign, The Atkins Group of Urbana and Vermilion Development Corporation of Danville.
UI Chancellor Richard Herman last fall established an advisory committee of neighbors, residents, university employees and others from the community.
"What the advisory committee does is remind the people in charge of the role of the public in this and how important this area is to the neighborhood," said Aidman, who sits on the committee. "A good part of the (university's redevelopment) plan is the university will own all the developers' plans, and so the university will be able to choose the best elements of the plans for redesigning that area."
The advisory committee also reviewed preliminary proposals and provided feedback on those early plans, said committee chairwoman Kathleen Holden-Pecknold, who is directing the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that eventually will be housed in Orchard Downs.
In mid-December, members of the real estate development team of Fox, Atkins and Vermilion Development met with residents to talk about preliminary ideas and plans.
"We were pleased with the direction, but that was four months ago," said Marlin, who is looking forward to finding out more details at the May public information sessions.
Many UI employees, like Marlin and Aidman, live near Orchard Downs, which is about a mile from campus. And many have spoken publicly about the redevelopment.
In response to questions about meetings between developers and neighbors and the university's conflict-of-interest policies, the administration sent a memo in December to advisory committee members and selected faculty and neighbors, reminding them that UI employees can speak as private citizens, but they should not represent the university. The university's search for a master developer is governed by the Illinois Procurement Code, which prohibits collusion or anticompetitive activity between state employees and bidders.
Meanwhile, the university also issued a request for proposals from companies interested in acting as advisers on the real estate deal. That firm has not been chosen yet. Proposals were due to the UI three days ago.
The chosen firm will work to ensure the financial interests of the university are protected, scrutinize the financial details and help the university devise a plan to negotiate the land deals, Kaler said.
At the October forum, some students and neighbors expressed concern about whether and to what extent the new Orchard Downs would include housing for UI graduate students and students with families.
Kaler said the amended request for proposals clarified the UI's expectations for graduate and family housing inclusion: There should be at least 200 to 400 such units, but developers are free to propose more.
Orchard Downs has 751 graduate and family units; 653 are occupied, Kaler said.
Holden-Pecknold envisions Orchard Downs as a multicultural, multigenerational environment.
"I see it as an exciting, vibrant place where people of different generations come together to learn from one another," she said.
When Orchard Downs is redeveloped, one component will be an active retirement community.
"We want to have, as part of Orchard Downs, a community center, and that's where (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) will be headquartered," Holden-Pecknold said about the membership organization for people 50 years and older. Until Orchard Downs is redeveloped, the institute will offer classes on campus.
Holden-Pecknold will facilitate the public presentations May 2 and 16.
"The one in the fall was for the public to provide input about the project. ... This time, developers will present their plans and the public will have the opportunity to provide written comments on elements of the proposals," she said.
After the May sessions, advisory committee members will share their thoughts with the selection committee, which hasn't been finalized yet, Kaler said. The selection committee will present its recommendation to Herman around mid-June. In July, Herman might then present a recommendation to UI President B. Joseph White and the board of trustees.
Some Orchard Downs residents have wondered about the timeline, such as when the redevelopment would take place and what would happen to their housing options during construction, said Haiyan Pei, a graduate student from China who is president of the Orchard Downs Family Housing Council.
She plans to attend the May 2 presentation.
"There are a lot of questions: What are the benefits to the city and school districts?" Marlin said.
But she's optimistic.
"Certainly, we have the brains to do this right. Certainly, we have the knowledge. It's just making sure it gets done," Marlin said.