Growing pains: Added density poses challenges

Growing pains: Added density poses challenges

Champaign won't get any taller in the immediate future, but it's starting to develop a bit of a prairie skyline.

The 267-foot-tall H.E.R.E. Enterprises, expected to be completed in 2015 at 308 E. Green St. — the former site of a campus convenience store and IHOP restaurant — is going to miss tying for the title as Champaign-Urbana's tallest building by one foot. That distinction will remain with its neighbor across the street, the 309 Green tower.

Let's be honest. At 24 stories and 268 feet, the 309 Green building doesn't stack up to skyscrapers in major cities — you would need nearly five and a half 309 Greens to hit the top of the Chicago skyscraper formerly known as the Sears Tower. You'd need more than 10 to reach the height of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But between the two towers at Fourth and Green and other high-profile projects just down the street, the added density in Campustown does pose some challenges to local government agencies.

Buildings in Champaign earn "high-rise" status when there is an occupied floor 75 feet or more above street level, according to Larry Happ, the city's building safety supervisor.

That means extra life-safety features are required in the tallest buildings in Champaign. Three of those are going up right now (the Hyatt Place hotel at Neil and Main streets, the Bankier high-rise at Sixth and Green and the H.E.R.E. building at Fourth and Green), and one was completed just last year (Eden Supportive Living on State Street near West Side Park).

Hit that crucial height, and city code requires that the building's structural design has to account for increased wind and earthquake loads. It needs smoke-proof stairways, a fire command center, emergency power and radio coverage for emergency responders.

Add a couple more floors and you'll hit 120 feet — and more city code requirements: illuminated exit paths and a fire service access elevator.

The Hyatt Place hotel in downtown Champaign, expected to be completed this year, does not hit that 120-foot threshold. At nine stories and 108 feet, it will be the 15th-tallest building in Champaign-Urbana and the 11th-tallest in Champaign.

At 420 feet, a Champaign high-rise would be required to have an extra exit stairway and an extra water supply to fire sprinklers — but there are not any 420-foot buildings around these parts.

Officials also know that planning a city gets more complicated when you add a whole bunch of people to a small area.

"Promoting a dense urban core and infill is something we want to encourage," said Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight. "Potentially over time we'll have issues with, perhaps, traffic congestion."

City codes also prescribe how much parking is required in a certain development, but those rules can be waived in special cases.

On the other hand, sometimes they'll require more parking: JSM Development will be required to build 131 public parking spaces in addition to its private parking in a garage it is planning as part of its hotel and apartment complex where campus parking Lot J now sits. The city was able to require that as a condition of it selling the land to JSM.

The JSM project is not a high-rise, but it will bring potentially a few hundred people to a space tighter than a city block that is not currently occupied.

Infrastructure can pose issues. The city will need to rebuild Healey Street to accommodate the JSM project near Sixth and Green — the old brick street just would not be able to handle the increased traffic load. JSM is helping to pay for part of that reconstruction.

More people also means more showers, more sinks and more toilets. That creates more wastewater, and the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District needs to think about how it's going to move all that liquid away from campus.

Sanitary district director Rick Manner points out that the sanitary sewers in that area were built in 1898, 1923, 1946 and 1956.

"It's been 60 years since any of those sewers have been built or expanded upon," Manner said. "While the designers put in quite a bit of cushion, they didn't really anticipate 20-story buildings up and down Green Street."

The sanitary district is planning to install a pump station on Second Street that would divert water away from those sewers. That's expected to cost roughly $6 million, though. Manner said it's not an imminent crisis, but it needs to be taken care of within the next five to 10 years.

"We need to be prepared for the future, and we need to have sufficient capacity," Manner said.

That all being said, density is generally a good thing for a city. It adds to the city's tax base in its core rather than on the fringe, where new sewers need to be built, roads upgraded and public safety services extended.

And most of the new density is going in along Green Street in an area that happens to have the best public transit service in the city. That helps a lot, Knight said.

Area businesses can expect to see a boost. Neither the Hyatt Place hotel downtown nor the Marriott TownePlace Suites in Campustown will have its own, in-house restaurant. Those visitors will need to eat somewhere.

"I think both the hotel in downtown and Campustown do nothing but help to support the existing businesses," Knight said.

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