Future use proposed for current Central site
CHAMPAIGN — Two Champaign school board members have an idea for what to do with the current high school building if and when the new Central High opens in September 2017.
On Monday night, board members Kristine Chalifoux and Kerris Lee presented the rest of the board their proposal to convert Central into a mixed-use public/private development they call a "Live/Work Community."
"As an architect, I have been looking at alternative uses for Central that would maintain the building and enrich the community," Chalifoux said. "It's a wonderful building, and obviously it isn't working as a high school any more, so what could we do with it?"
Lee said the idea could provide an experience for current Champaign students, graduates, and school district residents pursuing up-and-coming businesses.
"We think that Central may be the right structure to house that," he said.
Chalifoux said similar projects have been successful in New York City, including in East Harlem; New Orleans; Janesville, Wis.; Kansas City; West Dundee, Ill., and Moline.
Under the proposal, the Mellon Administrative Center and its functions would move to a portion of the first and second floors of Central.
"We get all the administrative functions in one place," Chalifoux said.
Another section of the facility would be what Chalifoux and Lee called an "entrepreneurial hub," a site where small business ventures are identified and started. This hub would be geared toward service-oriented and trade-oriented firms that need a place to start and need continuing education.
"This keeps small startup businesses in Champaign, and it strengthens Unit 4's ties with the business community," Lee said.
Part of one floor and part of the basement would be converted into leased office suites, artist's lofts and an art gallery.
The high school's shops and kitchens would be maintained for rental use, and Combes Gym and the school's theater would be maintained for community functions.
Unit 4 would use part of the facility to provide workshops and speakers on subjects like accounting, taxes and marketing, to maintain an educational component for small business owners.
Much of the second floor and all of the third floor would be converted into lofts or apartments that would be leased.
Lee said the "Live/Work Community" would be developed and managed by a third party.
"This is an awfully neat concept," said developer Mike Royse. "What happens with a lot of old institutional buildings is you end up with blight. The first thing here is to try to prevent that."
Royse said the concept supports the growth of Champaign's urban core.
School board member Jamar Brown said he was concerned that current Unit 4 students are "largely absent" from the concept.
"This seems like the building would be used by the community members and not so much for educating our students," he said.
School board member Lynn Stuckey also expressed concerns over the proposal.
"If we put the Mellon building there, we'll have children present," Stuckey said. "Sex offenders would not be allowed within a certain radius of the building. How does that impact the rental market? If this has school children present, I cannot knowingly lease to a registered sex offender. And if you know that an employee or a customer is a sex offender, they are not allowed on the property."
Stuckey also said there is an excess of unoccupied rental units in the Twin Cities.
"It is my understanding there are currently 2,000 vacant housing units available in Champaign-Urbana, and I know of approximately 100 units being built on the university campus," she said. "Why would we want to add to that excess inventory?"
School board President Laurie Bonnett stressed that no decision has been made on this or any other proposal.
Whether any of this ever happens depends on a future decision by the board and, later, the voters of the school district.
One week ago, a facilities committee made of teachers, principals, business professionals, parents and a student recommended moving Edison Middle School to Central and creating a proposed 400-student career prep academy there among its three options.
If the school board decides to proceed with an option involving moving Edison to the current Central building, that would preclude the "Live/Work Community" option.
And if voters decide to reject a ballot question increasing taxes to pay for a proposed high school on land east of Neil Street extended and between Interstate and Olympian drives, Central would stay where it is.