Clearing away C-U blight easier said than done

Clearing away C-U blight easier said than done

CHAMPAIGN — There are a lot of people happy to see what's happening on Neil Street.

The Hyatt Place hotel underway at Neil and Church streets is filling that "hole in the ground" in the heart of downtown Champaign after the Metropolitan Building burned down in 2008. The distressed Gateway Studios once described by a city councilman as a "black eye" on the community is coming down after its residents were evacuated in 2009.

Highly visible vacant properties like these catch a lot of grief from locals, so many breathed a sigh of relief when those two deals went through. The hotel and Gateway Studios projects, however, might not have moved forward without nudges from the city — and there are plenty more notoriously empty commercial buildings throughout Champaign-Urbana.

And after years of recession and shrinking or closing businesses, local officials say Champaign is overbuilt in a few areas. There's no sign of new retail filling the empty storefronts in the Country Fair Shopping Center anytime soon, and the old Circuit City on North Prospect is near unusable.

That has all kinds of effects, city officials say — it can depress surrounding property values and generate fire hazards. Entire blocks have burned down from fires that started in empty buildings. Sometimes it just plain looks bad.

"If we don't in-fill properties, then they actually become a negative for the city," said Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight. "They detract from property values; they aren't generating revenue themselves. So it becomes a bigger and bigger problem for the city to deal with."

The old AC Humko property on North Mattis Avenue soon will become a new warehouse for Kraft Foods, but it's another project that required special incentives from the city. Incentives for high-profile development projects seem to have become common lately, but they are not a magic bullet to rid the city of blight.

'Very few tools'

The problem is that the city actually does not have a whole lot of pull in getting these kinds of properties redeveloped. While it can provide a nudge in the form of incentives or tax rebates when a deal comes along, the hard part is getting the deal to come along.

It is easier for the city to solicit interest in a property when it actually owns the property. That is the case for an empty lot on the southeast corner of Neil Street and Bradley Avenue.

City officials hope to seek proposals for that lot soon. It will be rolled in to the Bristol Park redevelopment, Knight said, which is still in the planning stages.

When a private owner has control of a property, city officials cannot really step in until things start getting out of hand. It is up to the private owner and that person's real-estate agents to drum up some action.

"We have very few tools to work with," Knight said. "If a property reaches a certain condition, you can declare it a dangerous condition."

That's what happened with the Gateway Studios. It was first declared unlivable in 2009, when its residents were evacuated. But there it stood, empty for four years, before demolition finally started this month — largely because the city spent time getting a court order to tear it down.

With that court order, city officials would have been able to demolish the Gateway Studios themselves, and they very nearly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront to do so. Then a new owner, Kelly Dillard, got his proposal in just under the deadline and started the project himself.

Dillard already has much of the building in pieces on the ground. It's a welcome sight to city officials and police, who spent a lot of time and effort — and about $14,000 — to keep it from getting out of hand for four years.

Dillard said he plans to have the building completely down no later than May of next year. Some areas still need asbestos removal and will take longer than the sections already torn down.

But just because the building is torn down does not mean it will be easily redeveloped. Dillard is asking for help from the city — help that Knight said the city likely will provide — to find an interested developer once the site is cleared and ready for new construction.

Dillard said he does not yet know what kind of development might take the place of the infamous Gateway Studios. City officials had estimated the land could be worth $1.2 million once it's ready.

"We'll sell it to anyone who wants to buy it," Dillard said.

Greener fields

Another hurdle for redeveloping or reusing existing space is that it is not always competitive with building a new facility on the edge of town. The Circuit City on North Prospect Avenue, which closed in 2009, is a good example.

Knight said the city has heard of interest in the Circuit City location — but the place is such a mess that it does not make complete sense for the prospective buyer to locate there.

"They've indicated that it's gotten into such a condition that they would need assistance to get it up to condition," Knight said.

Without that assistance, Knight said, getting the old Circuit City location ready for re-use might not be competitive with moving into a "greenfield" location, or new construction on previously undeveloped land.

City officials prefer in-fill development over greenfield development because the city gets a higher return — extra tax revenue without having to extend city services like roads, sewers, police and fire coverage to a new location.

"Inherently, it's more efficient for us to serve an in-fill site than a greenfield site," Knight said.

Another consideration is that Champaign County has some of the richest agricultural land in the world, Knight said. Greenfield development often means the end for a piece of farmland.

The city has an "in-fill development program," which it uses to offer tax rebates to people willing to rebuild or re-use previously developed land. For example, the hotel underway at Neil and Church streets will have new tax revenues rebated for up to $3 million or seven years after it opens.

The city also approved up to $200,000 in tax rebates to help along the $1.3 million renovation of the Illinois Central Railroad Depot on the eastern part of downtown Champaign. That is where Black Dog Smoke & Ale House is expected to open a second location.

The program does not offer cash upfront — it only takes the new city revenue that would not have existed had the project never moved forward and returns it to the builder. The goal, Knight said, is to "overcome the market deficiency that's keeping that property from being developed otherwise."

"Basically you're looking at a property that has more risk than reward," Knight said.

Another perfect candidate for the program: the Gateway Studios property.

'A lot of space'

The parking lot of Country Fair Shopping Center off University and Mattis avenues does not fill up. There are a lot of parking spaces — and a lot of empty storefronts.

The challenge there, Knight said, is that there's just not a market for retail in that area. The problem was so apparent that, several years ago, the city conducted a market study.

"It showed there was more commercial square footage in that area than the demographics could support by double," Knight said. "One of the challenges there is there's a lot of space."

Space for retail or similar types of business is the city's realm, but the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation often fields requests for companies looking for office or industrial space.

The problem: Like retail space at Country Fair, there's too much vacant office space in Champaign County, said EDC Deputy Director Erik Kotewa. It's overbuilt by about 400,000 square feet, he said.

"When people talk about the commercial vacancy rate here, it's a problem," he said.

He said that abundance of space can be attributed to a number of factors. Some call centers closed right around the time the recession hit. Businesses started shrinking, which meant they needed less space.

"I think eventually we'll start to come out, but I think some of these companies have learned to be leaner," Kotewa said.

When the EDC gets a "lead" on a business looking for space, it tries to steer them to existing vacant office space: the County Plaza building in downtown Urbana or the M2 building in downtown Champaign are good options. Rantoul has some space, too.

Sometimes that does not work. For whatever reason, the existing options do not fit.

"Sometimes they just have to have new space," Kotewa said.

That being the case, getting a "lead" to lease existing space isn't all that difficult. The problem is getting a lead at all.

"It's not too hard to get people to take the existing space," Kotewa said. "It's getting people to want the existing space."

Problem properties?

Gateway Studios

Address: 1505 N. Neil St., C.

Closed: 2009.

Status: Demolition in process.

New owner Kelly Dillard said the building will be torn down by May at the latest. He will then seek to redevelop the property with city assistance. What might go in is still up in the air.

Circuit City

Address: 2006 N. Prospect Ave.

Closed: 2009.

Status: No action.

The old Circuit City would need some help to attract a new tenant. City officials say that, without some kind of financial assistance, the cost to fix it up might make it noncompetitive with new development.

Pages For All Ages

Address: 1201 Savoy Plaza Lane, Savoy.

Closed: 2009.

Status: No action.

Bookstore Pages For All Ages became a victim of recession in 2009, and Savoy Village Manager Richard Helton said, as far as he knows, there's nothing new to report other than mild interest over the past few months without any results.

Neil and Bradley lot

Address: 1100 block of North Neil St.

Closed: n/a.

Status: In planning.

The city owns the empty lot on the southeast corner of Neil Street and Bradley Avenue and hopes to develop it as part of its Bristol Park project. The project remains in the planning stages, but the city hopes to attract a developer to build.

Country Fair Shopping Center

Address: 200 block of South Mattis Avenue.

Closed: n/a.

Status: No action.

While the shopping center is home to a number of retail stores, many of its storefronts are empty. A Champaign report revealed there is double the retail square footage in the immediate area than what the market can support.

Sections (2):News, Local

Comments embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

pattsi wrote on December 01, 2013 at 10:12 am

An in fill policy deserves applauds. The visuals provided in the story might cause any taxpayer to wonder why Unit 4 has to go to the edge of the community, beyond the freeway, to find space for a new HS site. Creative imagination is missing as to how Unit 4 can in fill. The imagination is stuck in old education paradigms, not moving forward to how teaching will be done for the next 5 decades along with a perceived expectation that athletics have to be contiguous to the building. Why are the athletics part of a school district rather than a park district? Where is the real two-way community conversation?

Local Yocal wrote on December 02, 2013 at 8:12 am
Profile Picture

"And after years of recession and shrinking or closing businesses, local officials say Champaign is overbuilt in a few areas...just because the building is torn down does not mean it will be easily redeveloped...Champaign County Economic Development Corporation often fields requests for companies looking for office or industrial space. ...the problem: Like retail space at Country Fair, there's too much vacant office space in Champaign County,... It's overbuilt by about 400,000 square feet,..."

What we got here is failure to see the big picture. The big picture is what will be the jobs of the future. What will a high school graduate do for work after receiving their diploma? Until you answer that question, there is nothing new under this sun that could require more "development." The top priority of having adequate athletic facilities may be a starting point for what's wrong with our brains to tackle these design issues.

Another design flaw hindering our abilities to solve these problems is found in the photograph to this article. Look at the viable materials going into the dumpster that no scientist, no manufacturer, no contractor, no architect, no artist, no carpenter, ect. has offered to reclaim into servicable new products, like low income shelters, furniture, fencing, garages, compressed 4 X 8 sheets of particle boards, gardening amenities, sculptures, ect....instead of just tearing down the building and throwing all that non-biodegradable plastics, metals, ect. into the landfill. We should be parting it, sorting it, and re-using the salvagable materials.

"But that would take too long," what? Waiting 4 years for someone to do something? Such "un-building" projects could be done in the same amount of time, if not less, if you had 1000 people working on it, instead of one guy on a back hoe.

Monthly labor costs would be $264,000. Watch the money change hands under the current paradigm and it'll be about the same costs with the end result additional contamination of the landfill/aquifer, a green plot of grass, and we're still going to be waiting for somebody to don the Big Capitalist Pants to "develop" the property (to what? for whom?)

We could have 1000 people working, the project done, all those salvaged goods, additional work to convert the material into re-usable products, potential recoup of the costs in future sales, and all the social benefits that happen when people work for a living.

You have no need for new development if you have too many unemployed people  unable to be customers for the new businesses filling the office spaces. What business wants to set up shop in a county with the 3rd highest poverty rate in the state? (1 in 4)

The incentives must be toward paying unemployed people for work we need done. What is the work? Where does the money come from to pay the unemployed? Right now, you have taxes paying people to be idle and merely transfering your taxes back to grocery stores, power companies and landlords. Maybe old grocery stores, old power companies, and old landlords like it this way, I don't know. They certainly don't need any new developments.

MsAnneThrope wrote on December 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

Local Yocal for City Council!!


Well said!