Champaign council rejects conservation district for Clark Park neighborhood

Champaign council rejects conservation district for Clark Park neighborhood

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CHAMPAIGN — In a 6-to-3 vote Tuesday, the city council defeated a bid by some west Champaign residents to incorporate more than 200 area homes into a conservation district.

It was a crushing blow for a neighborhood group that has worked for more than a year to establish rules that would preserve their vision of the architectural character of the Clark Park neighborhood, using a 30-year-old ordinance some council members think is flawed.

It's a fight that began as the council was set to vote last year on a measure to increase allowable floor space for new houses in Clark Park and surrounding neighborhoods. The floor-area ratio ordinance would have allowed bigger homes to be built on the area's small lots, and some area conservationists have been pushing ever since to get the historical designation for the neighborhood. But others there haven't been as enthusiastic.

The neighborhood divide — seen previously at multiple meetings, on social media and at public hearings in the past year — continued at Tuesday's council meeting, with each side fielding a half-dozen speakers to argue for and against.

From presentations focusing on the history of the neighborhood to staunch rebukes of the proposed district, audience members spoke for an hour and a half before it was time for council members to discuss and vote.

"This advantages some people over others," said resident Seth Mendelowitz. "And I resent people who are not paying my property taxes, not paying my mortgage, trying to impose on my home a designation I don't want."

Mendelowitz was joined by two Garden Hills residents who opposed a conservation district they saw as a distraction to more important issues elsewhere in the city.

Champaign landlord Chad Smith, who lives in Garden Hills, asked the council not to spend more time and money debating what to do with the Clark Park neighborhood.

"I wish I could walk to a park, or walk down a sidewalk at night, since we don't have streetlights," Smith said. "People want to buy houses in Clark Park, not Garden Hills. I asked that you take a lot of consideration of other neighborhood issues instead of putting time and attention on places that are thriving."

But others felt that Clark Park's history needed to be preserved and that neighborhood founder John Clark was a "visionary" urban planner and designer. For Anthony Bamert, a member of the city's historic preservation commission, Clark Park is unique. Like Stock, Bamert wondered what neighborhood would qualify for conservation if not his own.

"We've lost a historic number of historic buildings in Champaign, and the Clark Park conservation would have been a step forward in preservation," he said. "If Clark Park doesn't qualify, then what neighborhood does? If Clark doesn't qualify, then why do we have the provision at all?"

Council members Greg Stock and Alicia Beck, who voted for the measure, criticized the application process and urged the council to look at single-family zoning restrictions currently in place.

Stock, Beck and Matt Gladney — a resident of Clark Park who also voted yes on the measure — agreed that the conservation-district application should have been approved based purely on its merits and how it conforms to the language of the ordinance.

Stock said over the past 13 months, "I feel like we're in the exact same place" and agreed with many Tuesday who said the neighborhood has been divided.

"We really need to ask ourselves, if Clark Park doesn't meet the definition for conservation, I don't think that anywhere in Champaign would," Stock said. "If not, then take it off the books. It's disingenuous to give people an option if we don't ever intend to make a conservation district. Clark Park is a victim of the ordinance, not the application."

But for the rest of the council, it appeared a conservation district was not the right way to deal with issues brought up by Clark Park residents.

Council member Clarissa Fourman said she had decided to vote "no" before Tuesday, condemning what she called an "elitist conversation" that ultimately diverted a year's worth of planning and development department attention to a "healthy neighborhood" and away from "unhealthy neighborhoods."

"This is the haves and the haves fighting on who can live in their neighborhood," Fourman said. "I think it's very shocking that we're talking about this. To be honest, I don't understand why you don't want development in your neighborhood. Maybe it's because I don't have the luxury of living in a neighborhood to decide what my neighbor's house looks like."

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