Neighbors upset, but city says its hands are tied by zoning laws
CHAMPAIGN — City administrators will recommend that the plan commission next week approve of a large East University Avenue apartment complex, and neighbors still are not satisfied with the city's explanation.
City planners met with residents Thursday night at Salem Baptist Church, not far from the proposed site of a six-story, four-building, 552-bedroom apartment complex with 15,900 square feet of ground-floor retail space along the north side of University Avenue between Fifth and Wright streets. The Indiana-based developer has dubbed it the Latitude housing development.
The proposal is in the middle of a public comment period before it goes to the plan commission on Jan. 15. Commissioners will pass their recommendation on to the city council for a final decision, expected on Feb. 4.
Nearby residents have been critical of the project, and repeated those concerns Thursday night.
"I feel like you're representing the development company instead of the neighborhood when I look at your rebuttal," resident Azark Cobbs told city planners.
Other expressed worries about parking and the complex's fundamental impact on the surrounding neighborhood, many residents of which have lived there for decades.
Developer Chase Sorrick, who was present at a December neighborhood meeting but not on Thursday night, has said he expects the complex to be largely inhabited by University of Illinois students. His Investment Property Advisors has asked for certain waivers of city rules, including lowering the required amount of parking and flexibility on open space requirements.
In return, city officials have asked the developer to build a bus shelter outside of the apartment complex and pay for the installation of crosswalk timers at the intersection of University Avenue and Wright Street. Officials have also required that he plan to phase in parking up to the amount that the city would typically require should it become a problem.
That was a sticking point for some residents, who said there is already a parking problem in their neighborhood with the university and hospitals nearby, and they worry the complex will only exacerbate that issue. City Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said he disagreed, and that officials do not expect demand for parking to be as high as the minimum number of parking spaces typically required.
Otherwise, the density and proposed uses in the proposal all conform with city zoning codes.
"The project (with the tradeoffs) is better than what could be built by right," said city land development manager Lorrie Pearson.
City officials said they met with residents in advance of the plan commission meeting so neighbors could prepare their comments for next week's public hearing. They stressed that the city can only consider criteria in zoning rules, but the developer is within his legal rights on some of the proposal's more controversial facets — like the sheer size of the buildings.
"I don't think you could put these skyscrapers in any other part of town other than District 1," Cobbs said.
Douglas Williams pointed out that the Latitude proposal is bigger even than some student housing complexes closer to campus.
"That's even out of step with the university," Williams said. "Definitely out of step with Park Street."
Cobbs added that the development likely will overshadow Salem Baptist Church, one of the city's oldest. City officials do not dispute that the large development could change the dynamic of the neighborhood, which itself is one of the city's oldest and most established — but they stressed that much of what the developer proposes is allowed by law and out of their control.
"Certainly it would change the character of the neighborhood," Knight said. "I don't disagree with that at all."