School site may well become central in years ahead
Cornfields. Fringe. The boonies.
The proposed site for Central High School along the city's northern border has inspired those descriptions from residents who see it as urban sprawl.
The site itself — 80 acres north of Interstate Drive, where Neil Street ends — is still a farm field, and to the north and beyond is nothing but soybeans, corn, trees and silos.
But to the east, west and south, development is creeping in, even as work begins on an eastward extension of Olympian Drive, the four-lane thoroughfare along the northern edge of the proposed school site.
Down the road, what will that area look like in 10 or 15 years?
Much less rural, with hundreds of new homes and businesses possible within a decade, some developers and city officials predict.
The city's comprehensive plan identifies that area as ripe for growth, forecasting a mix of residential and commercial development. The 2011 plan, "Champaign Tomorrow," envisions mostly residential development in the area north of Interstate, both apartments and houses, said Rob Kowalski, the city's assistant director of planning and development.
"It has the urban services to develop today," Kowalski said. "I can't really predict the market, but it's better positioned than other areas of the city for development."
The plan is a guide, not hard-and-fast, and could change in response to market conditions and other factors, he said. It has a 20-year horizon and is redone every five years.
"I think that area will be fully developed in 10 or 15 years," said council member Tom Bruno. "I have no doubt whether Unit 4 chooses to build a school there or not, that area is going to develop, and develop sooner than anyone can imagine."
Council member Marci Dodds, who has publicly expressed concerns about sprawl, is less sure.
"The growth plan is a best guess," she said. "To sort of act like it's set in stone, or that it will definitely happen, or that it must happen, is not necessarily correct.
"Sometimes growth plans are in reaction to what's going on and trying to help contain it and keep it manageable," she said.
'Not in the boonies'
The plan identifies the area up to Olympian as "Tier 1," meaning it has the city services (police, fire), bus service and infrastructure (sewers, etc.) available for growth, Kowalski said.
The area north of Olympian between Prospect and Market is also marked as residential but is identified as Tier 2 — suitable for future growth but requiring additional roads and sewers.
"It doesn't project exactly when someone's going to want to build in certain areas. It sets it up in logical, compact contiguous growth," Kowalski said.
"The plan is a vision or a guide for how we'd like to see things grow. It's not a zoning map," he said. "But we use it when development proposals are made. We want to be consistent with the long-range vision of the community."
Some of the land near the so-called Ponder-Atkins high school site is zoned commercial, although the property itself is zoned residential, which permits a school, Kowalski said.
Half of the school site, sold to the district by the Atkins Group development firm, has already been annexed into the city. The other parcel would require an annexation agreement, Kowalski said.
"I think what people tend to forget is that there's been quite a bit of investment in infrastructure in this part of town," said Mark Dixon, director of commercial development for the Atkins Group. "It's not in the boonies."
The Atkins Group, which offered seven sites to the district for consideration, has several residential and commercial developments in the area.
To the west of the high school site, the company's Ashland Park subdivision is well-established, with a new phase under construction. It will feature larger (three to five bedrooms) and slightly more expensive (up to $270,000) homes than previous phases, said Mike Martin, director of residential development.
Further west, at Mattis and Olympian Drive, Atkins' Clearview development could someday hold 500-plus homes and 234 multifamily units, he said.
Atkins also developed the Apollo Drive industrial park across Market Street, east of the school site, which houses the FedEx distribution center and more than 30 other businesses. It could double in size once fully developed.
To the south of the school site are multifamily apartment and condominium developments owned by other companies, including the Villas at Ashland Farms and Hunter's Pond apartments.
The Atkins Group also owns several undeveloped tracts of land in that area zoned for residential use, including two just south of Ashland Park.
The land north of Olympian is still owned by individuals, not developers, Kowalski said.
A central Central?
Despite criticisms of the Interstate site, Superintendent Judy Wiegand has argued that a Central High School there could someday be in the center of the district, not on the fringe.
For one thing, the school district has the most room to grow north. Development is already bumping up against the school district's boundaries on the south, in Savoy, and in southwest Champaign. The border between the Champaign and Mahomet-Seymour school district zig-zags through west Champaign, including the unfinished Jacob's Landing subdivision, Kowalski said.
But to the north the district line extends almost all the way to Thomasboro.
A district map shows plenty of room to grow in west Champaign, too, but the city has limited sewer availability to the west and northwest because of topography, Kowalski said. The area west of the Boulder Ridge and Sawgrass subdivisions has no sanitary sewers to support more development, he said.
"Sewers generally need to run downhill so gravity can do its job," he said. "If not, we have to build pump stations. And that's expensive. That's why we haven't been seeing a lot of development proposals west of Rising Road in that area."
City officials met with school district representatives several years ago to show them "where development is likely sooner rather than later," he said.
"If you look at direction that Champaign can grow, it's logical that it goes to the north," Martin argued. "I don't think it's going to be long and it is going to be 'Central' High School again. Whether it's in our lifetime or not, I don't know."
Definition of sprawl
Bruno called sprawl "a pejorative term," adding, "I haven't met anybody who says they are pro-sprawl. The question would be how you define it."
And he suspects the high school will have little effect on development along Interstate Drive, positive or negative.
But Dodds said projects like schools and parks make land more valuable and draw residents. She is uncomfortable with growth beyond the city's perimeter unless "you're busting at the seams as a population."
"If you're not, if you're chewing up greenfield or farmland, in our case, without revitalizing the interior of the town, that is the textbook definition of sprawl," Dodds said.
"We have lots of other areas that can handle people living in town or subdivisions that have already started developing," she said, citing Liberty on the Lake and Jacob's Landing as examples.
"Once you take this amazing, gorgeous, made-by-glaciers farmland and pave it over, it's no longer that kind of farmland again. It's gone," she said.
In the short term, building on the edge of town is cheaper and easier for developers than having to rehab or demolish existing properties, Dodds said.
But over the long term it costs much more, she said, in terms of additional fire and police protection, roads, snow removal and other services — not to mention traffic congestion over I-74 and air quality from increased auto emissions.
"It's not that I don't ever want to see it develop. I want to see it develop when we need it to develop, not because it's just easy."
The school district is awaiting a study on the long-term costs of the two primary sites that have been under consideration, the Ponder-Atkins site and the Spalding Park-Judah Christian site in central Champaign. But Wiegand and school board President Laurie Bonnett said the study would have to show significant long-term costs with Interstate site to sway the decision back toward Spalding, which the board considers too small and costly to develop.
The school district also expressed interest in acquiring 60 acres at Dodds Park for a new Central, but the park district nixed that idea Thursday.
Some of the developments underway or planned near the school site at Interstate Drive and Neil Street:
Ashland Park subdivision: A total of 550 homes planned and 430 built already, directly west of the school site across future Neil Street extended.
Hunter's Pond: One- and two-bedroom apartment complex on Interstate Drive, immediately south of the school site and north of Market Place Mall. A dozen buildings are in place and more are planned.
Villas at Ashland Park: Two- and three-bedroom condominiums southwest of the school site.
Apollo Drive: A 550-acre industrial park across Market Street east of the school site, including a large FedEx distribution center. Half the park is developed, with 32 businesses and 1,200 employees.
Pinehurst: A 60-acre office park underway west of Ashland Park, with about 12 acres developed to date.
Clearview: 330-acre development planned near Olympian and Mattis Avenue, behind St. Thomas More. Preliminary plans call for about 500 new homes, 254 multifamily units, a nine-acre retail complex, medical facilities and possibly an extended-stay hotel. Carle has purchased 100 acres in that development. Construction could start in 2015 or 2016.