Search for UI Research Park phase developer down to two

Two companies have been named finalists to develop the next phase of the University of Illinois Research Park, and both firms will make presentations on campus Monday.

The UI Research Park Board of Managers, a group appointed to oversee the south campus development, will meet at 11 a.m. Monday at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign to hear presentations from current research park developer Fox/Atkins of Champaign and Atlanta, Ga.-based real estate firm Carter.

Because the university's 10-year contract with Fox/Atkins as master developer expires at the end of May, the university issued a request for proposals from interested developers last fall. Three firms responded, and the two finalists were invited to present to the board, which will make a recommendation to the UI Board of Trustees.

"The outcome (of the meeting) depends on the presentations. I do not necessarily see a choice being made at the meeting. There could be follow-up discussions with both of them," said Avijit Ghosh, the UI's vice president of technology and economic development. His office also oversees the park's development.

The research park began in 2000 when the university selected Fox/Atkins as the developer. Over the last decade, 11 buildings have gone up on about 40 acres, mostly west of First Street and south of St. Mary's Road in Champaign.

The university leases the land to Fox/Atkins, and the developer is responsible for building and leasing the buildings. The developer owns the buildings, but in 50 years ownership is transferred to the university.

The next phase calls for expanding the park onto land south of the I Hotel and Conference Center and St. Mary's Road to Windsor Road, east of First Street and toward Fourth Street extended.

Both firms submitted proposals of more than 100 pages each, including their experience, references and thoughts on marketing the park.

"We have two good proposals," Ghosh said. The board will fully examine those proposals and discuss them before a developer is chosen, he said.

Those topics of discussion? "The ability of the developer to deliver on the kinds of the things we'd like to see in the park, the ability to generate potential tenants and help the research park grow," he said.

The research park "is not just a pure real estate operation. Every tenant has an intellectual connection with the university," he said.

"The next 10 years are going to be a complicated time, given the economic situation," said Peter Fox, managing member of Fox/Atkins Development LLC.

Despite the economic challenges, Fox said "the park needs to continue at the same or even a faster pace if possible so we really get the jobs in the community that we currently don't have."

Fox said one of the most compelling features the research park can offer potential tenants is talent – high-quality talent from UI students, graduate students and faculty and staff.

His list of top 25 prospective companies to recruit to the park includes, for example, Procter & Gamble, Boeing, Kraft Foods and Google.

Over the years, Fox/Atkins added to the research park walking trails, an outdoor amphitheater and a fitness center in the Gateway Building.

He also said Fox/Atkins had gradually "greened" existing buildings by updating to efficient lighting and making Zipcars available at the I Hotel.

Future plans call for adding an electric-car charging station by the hotel and conference center and continuing to incorporate no-mow zones and use native plantings.

Fox also said new buildings would be built to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building standard.

According to the Fox/Atkins proposal, the first development in the next phase would entail building a three-story project called the Signature Building, located just south of the hotel and conference center.

It would include 65,000 square feet of office space and be built once the Gateway Building, or former Motorola office building, at 1800 S. Oak St., C, has enough tenants.

The second phase, according to the proposal, would entail building nearly 40,000 square feet of retail space at the northeast corner of Windsor Road and First Street at the south entrance to the research park.

Fox envisions a Trader Joe's-type of anchor at the center. Work on that development could start as soon as April, he said. Other possible tenants could include a FedEx Office-type of shop, a local bank branch or a specialized medical practice.

"I don't think anyone is interested in another strip center," Fox said.

"The thing we found important in development today is a mixed use of space," how commercial, retail and residential can "work together and complement one another," said Gary Paetau, senior vice president at Carter.

Paetau is a UI graduate and former member of the track team who used to run through the current research park area when it was part of the South Farms.

He runs a division of Carter that focuses on higher education building projects, including the research park at the University of South Florida.

Some institutions are restrictive on what businesses are allowed to rent space in their parks, but one standout feature of the UI park is it's "much more broad and open," he said.

As far as whether the future park expansion could include retail or residential, Paetau, who described the next phase as "a great opportunity," said he was looking forward to sitting down with university representatives and talking more about their plans.

He said his firm could help the university develop the park "in ways they haven't thought about."

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