Solar farm gets OK; land had been considered for Champaign high school

Solar farm gets OK; land had been considered for Champaign high school

CHAMPAIGN — A solar-power facility planned on the University of Illinois' south farms will be built on land that has been under consideration for a new Champaign high school.

The 20.5-acre solar farm, a $15.5 million project approved Thursday by UI trustees, will be built on the south side of Windsor Road, between First and Neil Streets. The land is now used by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

The Champaign school district has been considering a 70-acre plot at the southwest corner of First and Windsor — and a similar one on the northwest corner of First and Curtis Road — as a possible location for a new high school to replace Champaign Central. Both remain on a district website — at — showing 11 potential sites for the new school.

Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand and other school officials said they weren't aware that the university was planning a solar farm near that corner until they read about it in The News-Gazette last week.

UI administrators, for their part, said they didn't realize the school district was still seriously interested in the land.

Former Associate Chancellor Bill Adams, who is now an adviser to UI President Bob Easter, said Unit 4 officials approached him several years ago about the idea of building a school on the west side of First Street, somewhere between Curtis and Windsor.

The UI was agreeable and suggested it be located at the north or south end of that area, fronting Windsor or Curtis, rather than in the middle.

But Adams said school officials later indicated they weren't interested in the property.

"We were under the assumption that it was no longer in play," Adams said Thursday.

The school district first identified seven possible sites for a new school two years ago, including the two on UI property, as it debated Central's future. The board later eliminated some and added others, and recently hired an educational facility planning firm, DeJong Richter, to weigh community opinions on the sites.

Associate Director Scott Leopold said the firm is working on a demographic study and the community discussions will likely begin in December. Wiegand hopes to bring a recommendation to the school board by late April.

Ideally, the district wants 60 acres for a new school and athletic fields.

Once the solar farm is built there won't be enough room left along the Windsor Road site, UI officials said. The solar farm will consume a large chunk of the west side of that plot, and much of the rest is taken up by the pond, flood plain and right-of way.

But the Curtis Road site would still be an option, officials said.

"There still would be land available if the community decided to still build a high school in that area," Wiegand said. "We'd have to take a look at it and have it appraised again."

School board member Dave Tomlinson, who was board president when the UI land was first considered, said the initial discussions never got beyond the talking stage. Of the two First Street sites, Tomlinson said the district was leaning toward the northern one, on Windsor. It sits in unincorporated Champaign County but abuts the city of Champaign, whereas the Curtis Road site is in Savoy.

But Adams thought the district was more interested in the Curtis Road site, which offers more land between First Street and the railroad tracks. No curb cuts would have been possible along Windsor, and that property posed safety hazards — the pond and proximity to the Canadian National railroad tracks and the UI's Fire Services Institute, UI officials said.

Adams said the university wanted to work with the school district if possible.

"We want to have good schools in Champaign-Urbana," he said.

Most likely, the UI would have proposed a land swap, whereby the school district would buy other farm property and transfer that to the UI in exchange for the First Street plots.

The UI's master plan shows no other future uses of the sites, other than research farms, Adams said. he land is now used by the Department of Crop Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

"That's really fertile, really good land," Adams said.

The solar farm is scheduled to begin producing power by next fall. Phoenix Solar Inc. of San Ramon, Calif., will design, build and operate the farm for the first 10 years, and the UI will buy all the energy produced under a $15.5 million power-purchase agreement. After 10 years the UI will own the solar farm.

The UI will pay about $5.3 million more for the energy over the first 10 years than it would cost to produce it from conventional sources. But it's expected to produce about 2 percent of the electricity used by the campus, helping it meet energy goals outlined in a 2010 Climate Action Plan. The campus Student Sustainability Committee has tentatively agreed to cover about $1 million of that $5.3 million subsidy with proceeds from a student sustainability fee. In other business Thursday:

— Trustees approved Adams' appointment as a visiting senior adviser to the president through June 30, at a salary of $96,000. Adams retired in June but was rehired to lead a review of UI central administration.

— Sidney Micek, who is retiring next month as executive director of the UI Foundation, reported that new business is down $18 million in the first quarter of this fiscal year, and cash flow is down $10 million, over the same period last year. But he noted that the UI wrapped up its Brilliant Futures campaign last year, the best fundraising year on record for the foundation.

Micek also said the UI's $100 million Presidential Scholarship Initiative has raised 57 percent of its goal, well ahead of schedule, and the target may be increased. The initiative is scheduled to wrap up in June 2014.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 09, 2012 at 2:11 am
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Brown v. Board was good, and important in 1954 (and again in 1955).


Its unfortunate legacy is the expectation that children will be bused or driven to school, rather than walk.


No one, and I mean NO ONE lives in the South First Street corridor. The only reason to build there would be cheap land. 


That might seem like a good reason now. It's bad for the long run.

sacrophyte wrote on November 09, 2012 at 6:11 am



Au contraire, there are two students who live in the southern end of the row of houses north of the pig research building. And you start picking up a lot more as you move south of Curtis, all within easy walking distance (been there, done that). Granted, most students would still require transportation of some form.


So I am curious, where would you stick a high school if the choice were all yours, if you had the final vote? Not only where you would put it, but how would you support your argument against other well-intentioned locations? I ask because I am truly curious - my own mind is not yet made up. I also favor a location that is relatively easy to walk to which means the site should most likely be situated in a relatively dense student area. But will that same site be dense in 15-30 years from now?


-- charles schultz

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 09, 2012 at 10:11 am
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Thanks for asking CS.


Morrissey Park? Assuming your 30 year sprawl idea.  I like the current site, too. It would need more storeys and a parking deck, I guess.


Spalding Park?

bmwest wrote on November 10, 2012 at 8:11 am
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Part of the problem stems from the perceived need for sports facilities.  If we didn't allow sports to dictate the site, more options would be available.  I'm all for encouraging sports but a partnership with the park district or other existing shared facilities and busing athletes more than students would be worth considering.  It might also be worth considering the use of 3 smaller high schools rather than 2 larger ones if busing distance is of concern.

sacrophyte wrote on November 11, 2012 at 8:11 pm

@Rob: The school board briefly mentioned the Spalding Park area earlier this year at a board meeting and they were having a lot of difficulty with the train tracks (north and south). And Morrisey Park does seem a tad on the small side. But, like you said, if we completely remove the requirement for sports facilities and think about adding more storeys, those locations do become a lot more feasible, which aligns with what bmwest is saying. And further begs the question, how important is sports really? To whom do we listen to anser that question? Because surely we each feel differently about it.


This also segues into the topic of what are we willing to pay for? If, like bmwest says, we want 3 smaller high schools, would we keep the current two we have and downsize them and simply build a third? Keep Centennial and build 2 more? Ultimately, what is most important? The cost or the facilities? Oh, and something about education in there somewhere.....


I hope both of you (Rob and bmwest) are making your thoughts known to the school's Public Engagement firm (Dejong-Richter and Fallon), either through the futurefacilities web site, or by emailing Stephanie Stuart directly.


-- charles schultz

rsp wrote on November 12, 2012 at 8:11 am

Sports programs keep kids in school and on the right path. That's been proven over and over. 

increvable wrote on November 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm

I'm hoping they go with Country Fair. That option takes two problems and turns them into one solution. That shopping center will never recover, so buy everyone out, raze it and build a modern school. The new school can share athletic facilities with Centennial, and it's very accessible to public transportation.

simplecitizen wrote on November 09, 2012 at 10:11 am

This is the same kind of argument that came up over the YMCA location.  But in the end it comes down to what is realistic.  Even IF you were able to purchase all the land necessary in a denser area, and I say if because it is likely to take numerous property owners to be willing to sell, the land costs would be enormous, not to mention the costs to demo these buildings.  I have heard other discussions about the current Central location, but then the logistics don't work out because what do you do with the kids when you knock down the old to build the new?  I'm not going to claim to know a lot about this topic, but common sense tells you what the issues are.

wam wrote on November 09, 2012 at 2:11 pm

So, the UofI is going to spend over $15M to build a facility that produces less than 10% of the campus power needs when we already have a power plant capable of producing addtional power at a cost well less than this propose new facility...And, this new facility will be funded when the University is struggling to attract top talent with coompetitive salaries and maintain current infrastrure. A portion of the cost will come from student fees when we are trying to make college more afordable for students. Oh , terrific, the U of I will own the facilities - which will likely be technologically obsolete and need to be replaced with new in-efficient and subsidy required technology...It is also wonderful to know that this power generation facility will go on an adjacent property to the current campus because we never grow from generation to generation and this land will never be needed....Well, that is unless the President's staff might send an email or pick up a phone and call the school board to see if they were still considering using the site for a future high school...I'm all for alternative energy sources but this is crazy.

Sid Saltfork wrote on November 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I think it is only 2%.  However, the amount of power production is not important.  It is shiny, and sleek.  Il est tres chic.  Whether it is cost effective, or even works, is not the point.  It looks good just like the one windmill that did not happen.  It is a statement, and nothing more.  If it were placed elsewhere, drunken students may throw rocks at it just like the greenhouses on campus.   It is one of those "got to have" things for image.