Council rope-a-dope claims another victim

It's sadly entertaining to listen to representatives of the city of Urbana proclaim their business-friendly attitude and denounce any suggestions to the contrary as a bad rap.

But what's revealing is observing members of the city council, the municipality's policymaking body, confront a business issue and send a clear message that shows how they really feel about development that expands the property tax base and provides an entrepreneur an opportunity to make a profit.

Two weeks ago, in dealing with the proposed construction of an apartment building at Harvey and Main streets, council members reaffirmed the city's negative reputation when they sent a clear message to local builder Howard Wakeland.

The council, after having approved a modification of zoning requirements for half of Wakeland's apartment project last year, voted against similar modifications for the other half by a vote of 4-2. With the encouragement of city staff, Wakeland had asked the council to allow his building to encroach 8 feet into the required 15-foot setback on Main Street. Approval for the entire project was intended to be covered by the council's first vote. But, because of an oversight, the first council vote covered only 1014 and 1016 W. Main St. and overlooked three other lots, 1010, 1012 and 1014 W. Main St. The April 3 vote was scheduled to rectify the mistake.

Wakeland, none too pleased to be a victim of the council's little joke, initially sputtered in rage over his shabby treatment. Two weeks later, he is philosophical about what happened and described himself as a sadder but wiser developer of property in Urbana. And poorer, too.

Wakeland estimated that his dalliance with the city on this issue – architecture fees for now-abandoned plans, rising interest rates and lost rents from multiple apartments demolished to clear the way for construction – had cost more than $50,000.

"All I can do is laugh, redesign the project and get on with life," Wakeland said.

So that's what he is doing. Two planned buildings will be converted into one, and Wakeland's architect is "redesigning the building so that no council review will be needed." Construction could begin by summer, possibly sooner depending on how quickly the city approves revised plans.

In a word, Wakeland said he will "survive." He said he has no choice because his family-owned company owns considerable properties in Urbana and he can't leave.

But what about other developers who have a choice about where they invest. Why should they spend time, effort and money in Urbana, when a majority of the city council appears not only indifferent, but actively hostile, to what they are trying to do.

That doesn't mean, of course, that all developers will avoid Urbana. They won't, but they will approach it with trepidation and know they'll hear the inevitable "I told you so" when they run into brick walls. That's what Wakeland has been hearing lately from friends and business associates, and, somewhat sheepishly, he's been telling them they were absolutely right.

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