Police seek security improvements at Urbana development

URBANA — Urbana police are hopeful that security improvements promised at one of the city's newer housing developments will mean increased safety for its residents and fewer visits by officers.

Hamilton on the Park, at the northeast corner of Wright and Eads streets on the western border of Urbana, is a 36-unit development for low-income residents.

The attractive, new two-story townhomes are tucked between Booker T. Washington Elementary School on the west and the Morning Star Free Will Baptist church on the east. The complex features a small playground near the main office.

Champaign's Douglass Park, with its ball field, community center and library, are just west of the elementary school on Grove Street.

Opened in October as a replacement for Dunbar Court, Hamilton on the Park was fully leased by the first of the year, according to Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles, who heads up the city's north district patrol division.

"In late March or early April, the calls for service spiked in that complex," Surles said. "We've had domestics, fights, armed subject, remove subject, pretty much everything under the sun."

Surles said there were 15 calls for service in March and 49 in April, compared with 13 in January and 20 in February.

Three of the more noteworthy:

— About 11:30 p.m. March 17, shots were fired at the complex, although no one was apparently wounded.

— At 1 a.m. April 7, a man was inside an apartment when he was hit in the buttocks by a shot that came through the back door. The shot traveled through the building and hit him as he was in the living room on the first floor. Other bullets entered through the back door and exited out the front. The people inside said they didn't know why anyone would fire shots into the apartment.

— At about 2:40 a.m. May 3, police were called to a large fight in the parking lot. Police said one woman had stabbed another woman in the head. The alleged stabber ran to a car, which a group of angry women surrounded. She eventually escaped after a man pulled out a gun and warned the angry women to get away from the car. The man was criminally charged with a weapons offense; police are looking for the alleged stabber.

Those incidents, as well as other drive-by shootings in the area on the Champaign side of Wright Street, prompted a couple of meetings that included representatives of the Champaign school district, the property owner, managers and the city of Urbana, Surles said.

The complex sits on land that is owned by the Housing Authority of Champaign County, which is leasing the property to The Benoit Group to under a long-term agreement. The Benoit Group, according to Surles, contracts with Wallick Communities, based in Columbus, Ohio, to manage the property.

"We talked about a number of things," Surles said, "and a security plan was suggested to them."

The second meeting was held Thursday.

Surles said city officials reminded the stakeholders of Urbana's aggravated public-nuisance ordinance, passed in 2010 as a way to get landlords to deal with problem tenants at properties where police were being called repeatedly.

"We didn't twist their arms. We said, 'There's this ordinance, but we want to work with you cooperatively to solve problems,'" he said.

Two improvements scheduled to happen sooner than later include having a full-time manager on site and a fence around the complex.

Surles said the manager for Hamilton on the Park was splitting time between that complex and Oakwood Trace in Champaign.

"Clearly, that's not working," Surles said, adding that the city also asked the property manager to hire security staff for when the manager can't be there.

"We asked for there to be a fence around the perimeter of the complex. It's supposed to be up in three to four weeks," Surles said.

Ed Bland, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the authority does not have a hand in the day-to-day operations of Hamilton on the Park, but he is aware of the security plans.

"I know that they are aggressively going to be making some security changes and will address what's been going on," Bland said.

Hamilton on the Park is the housing authority's first joint venture with The Benoit Group, but the two are also working together in Champaign.

Providence at Sycamore Hills would include 92 multifamily and townhome rental units on the former site of Joann Dorsey Homes at Bradley and McKinley avenues. And Providence at Thornberry could have 160 rental units in the Turnberry Ridge subdivision in southwest Champaign.

Together, the two developments could cost $34 million.

Bland said the situation at Hamilton on the Park has not shaken his confidence in those projects or in The Benoit Group. He said he expects the changes will hold residents and their visitors accountable.

"I feel with the measures that they're putting in place, they will able to use those same measures with Sycamore and Providence at Thornberry," Bland said.

A call to a representative of The Benoit Group was not returned.

News-Gazette staff Writer Patrick Wade contributed to this report.

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rsp wrote on May 13, 2014 at 9:05 am

They need to put up some security cameras there and maybe with the new upgrade at the park. Why invest so much and not have everyone be safe?

mrseeu2 wrote on May 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

I'm just wondering will there be a mass exit of people from Turnberry Ridge Subdivision and from other subdivisions in that area when Providence at Thornberry is constructed. Also will the problems that plague Hamilton On The Park also plague Providence at Thornberry and if so what effect will it have on the property value of any of those homes in those areas. I will add that this is not a black or white issue nor a rich or poor issue, these questions deal only with criminal elements that have invaded Hamilton and have the potential to invade Thornberry. Strong security is definitely needed to protect all of the law-abiding citizens of Hamilton.

787 wrote on May 13, 2014 at 11:05 am

Was the City of Urbana finally successful in re-establishing law and order in Southeast Urbana?

mee wrote on May 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Just what we need in southwest Champaign.  Shootings. Stabbings.  No accountability.  Notice how one corporation owns the housing project,and one operates it. Neither are local.