Impact study will look past Central issue

Impact study will look past Central issue

UI professor who is helping with project is doing it for free

A study examining the long-term impact of a new high school on the community at large might come too late to affect the Central High School site, but its authors are hopeful the upcoming report can inform future decisions.

"We're looking in a deeper and broader way at community impacts than we've tried to before," said consultant Mike Royse, one of three people leading the study. "If we start to think holistically about how to make decisions about where to put things, we are likely to end up with a more sustainable community."

The effort grew out of ongoing conversations between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and school district about potential transportation costs involved in two high school sites under study, at Interstate Drive and at Spalding Park.

Karl Gnadt, MTD managing director, said the conversation turned to the wider impacts — on infrastructure, economic activity, land values, tax revenue and the environment — and both parties agreed they had not been studied extensively.

The MTD had already had two consultants on contract for other projects — Royse and community development professional David Foote — and offered to have them coordinate a "Benefit Cost Life Cycle Analysis" of the two sites, Gnadt said.

Royse and Foote, in turn, asked Brian Deal, University of Illinois associate professor of urban and regional planning, to lead the study. Deal is not being compensated for his time, officials said.

"I'm doing it because I think it's important, and it can help the community move forward," Deal said Wednesday.

Deal said the report will cover what the school-site decision means to the broader community, "not just the bottom line of the district, but everybody."

It will include the potential environmental cost, "opportunity" cost and how the site will affect taxes, property values, mobility and health. The study has had input from the school district, Champaign park district, MTD, city of Champaign, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission and others, Deal said.

Royse, who has worked with Deal on sustainability and planning issues, said it was a tall order to finish in "a short period of time," given the school district's timeline. It was clear that it might come too late for the Central decision, he said, but "we decided to take the risk and dive into it."

The school board said last week that it is moving ahead with the Interstate site, unless something significant is found in the cost-benefit analysis.

Deal said the report isn't meant to draw any conclusions but hopes it will articulate the broader costs and "shed some light on it, provide some information that's useful in making a decision."

"Nobody questions the fact that everybody on the board is trying to do the right thing," Deal said.

"I feel like if we had a broader conversation earlier about the implications of a decision like this, and the decision-making process could have reached outside of the school board and the school district boundaries to include others affected by this, it might have been a different decision."

Some of the earlier studies that have come out were puzzling to Deal, such as one that suggested there would be increased traffic congestion at Springfield and Prospect avenues if Central were moved six blocks north of its current site to Spalding Park.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said.

Similarly, regarding the school district survey that said only 10 percent of high school students walk to school, Deal said "it's the perception of accessibility" that's important: if I'm running late at work and can't pick up my son from school today, could he walk home instead?

"When we have lots of ways in and out and lots of kids can walk, it relieves a lot of stress on the families," he said.

Deal is executive director of the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center, which helps public-sector and business clients identify energy savings through intelligent building design. School board member Kristine Chalifoux, an architect, also works at the center, and Deal is her supervisor, but he said he has not talked to her about the study.

"I don't want to have any conflict. She knows nothing about it," Deal said, and Chalifoux confirmed that.

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