Dodds: Site not economically or environmentally sustainable

Dodds: Site not economically or environmentally sustainable

Marci Dodds, the District 4 representative on the Champaign City Council, explains why she finds the proposed site for Central to be a deal-killer.

Unit 4 is asking voters to approve $149 million to build a new Central High School on farmland on the edge of town as well as renovate Centennial.

As much as I desperately want our high schools updated, as much as I am committed to and grateful for Unit 4's teachers and staff for the education they provide, I can't support the site picked for Central. It is not economically or environmentally sustainable.

It will raise new barriers to education for those who already have too many. It will forever alter our community.

Unit 4's proposal fits an outdated 1950s model of building expansive, and expensive, campuses on the edges of town — historically, one of the prime causes of sprawl. Sprawl occurs when people move from the urban areas of a city to the edge, taking more land and more space to provide the same number of people homes, work, shopping, etc. It is development out of balance.

While building on the edge of town is almost always cheaper upfront and short-term, the long-term costs are borne by taxpayers forever. Since our population hasn't grown to the point where we are busting at the urban seams, we will simply be shifting people from one area of town, where services are already provided, to another, where they aren't.

That is sprawl. And it is expensive.

In 2010, Tischler Bise completed a fiscal impact study for Champaign that did the math on different types of development. That study found the cost to build or update infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, storm drainage, sewer) and provide parks, trails and other amenities, as well as providing services such as police, fire, snow plowing and road maintenance, all outweigh the property taxes returned by almost all new edge-of-town development.

Sprawl is (usually) a net loss to the community. Development in the urban center, on the other hand, returned more in property taxes than it "cost" in services. It is (always) a net gain to the taxpayers.

It's easy to see why. Corn and soybeans don't need plowing, police or parks. People do.

Because the site is on the edge of town, most students who attend the new Central won't live within walking or even biking distance. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District does not currently operate buses out to that site, and the cost to service the area will be roughly double what Unit 4 currently pays.

Regardless of whether Unit 4 negotiates a good deal with the MTD, provides its own transportation, or the MTD "absorbs" the cost, the taxpayers are paying for it.

It's likely, though, that most students and faculty will drive to the new Central. The site plan proposes 1,250 parking spaces to handle the cars. That's not 1,250 classrooms, art spaces, science labs, rehearsal rooms, band rooms, locker rooms, books, or supplies. No. It's parking spaces.

Removing the options to walk or bike to school and forcing people to rely on cars and buses hits lower-income students and their families disproportionately hard. Those students are already more likely to face challenges attending school — and they (and their families) are also least able to afford gas and insurance, much less a car.

On the other hand, those who drive will have no choice but to cause increased traffic and increased air pollution for the whole community, simply to get to school.

Unit 4 has stated consistently that it will reuse the current Central building and it should be commended for its commitment to doing that. Central is well-built, architecturally interesting and contributes to the character of Champaign.

Yet, whatever Unit 4 does with Central will require updating the building: new electrical, air conditioning, flexible and programmable spaces, parking. But, then, why build a new building if Central is going to be fixed anyway?

All of the $149 million the referendum proposed goes to land costs, bricks and mortar. None of it is slated for teachers to staff the new/updated buildings, supplies to take advantage of the new spaces, or costs to maintain the buildings, fields, or parking lots. New money will be needed for all that.

At the end, siting Central on the edge of town is a misguided effort that will leave students, teachers and the entire community worse off than when we started. So I will do something on Nov. 4 that I have never done in my life.

I will walk into a voting booth, close the curtain ... and vote "no" on a school referendum.

Marci Dodds, a nurse with Carle, has been Champaign council member since 2005. Her two children attended Central High School.

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jwr12 wrote on October 26, 2014 at 12:10 pm

A thoughtful and convincing column! Thank you.

Checkyourfacts wrote on October 26, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Dear Mrs. Dodds:  

I don't know who did your research, but they gave you false information.  As a simple check of the MTD daytime maps will show, THERE IS INDEED bus service to this site.  It's on the  Red line.  Here's the URL, for your convenience, and for the folks at the News-Gazette who have apparently abandoned all journalistic principles:

Furthermore, if you and your family were so enviromentally sensitive (especially regarding infill development), and cared so much about the education of our youths, why did you not jump at the opportunity to locate Central at Dodds Park?  Your family could have come out of the deal with not one, BUT TWO!!!!!!!, parks that had your name attached to them.  Perhaps you've seen the plans the Park District had for the site at Interstate?  It was supposed to be an even better soccer complex than currently exists...

And you probably could have leveraged that parkland into getting the Dodds family name plastered at some place in the building (perhaps the library?  Or maybe the Industrial Technology space?).

How much money does your family and Dodds Construction plan to make off the Interstate Drive site?  Or are you upset that your family isn't making any money off the Interstate Drive site?

There was a time when I had respect for you.  You seem determined to kill it.

jwr12 wrote on October 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Dear "Check your facts":

Check *your* facts.  Here is how the News Gazette described the official position of MTD Director Gnadt late last summer:

"— There is no service to the Olympian Drive site, and the MTD had no plans to add it in the near future, Gnadt said, so any service would fall to the school district to cover, he said."


Showing the existence of a single, red line that kinda sorta runs near but not actually to the new site is far from showing how a high school with 1700 students and hundreds of workers can be supplied by said line.  I trust the professionals more than sarcastic "simple checks" here.


See : for the full story.


jlc wrote on October 28, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Pro tip: the dashed line on the bus route map indicates limited service. There's only one line, and most of the time it doesn't even go to Interstate and Neil.

MahometMatt wrote on October 30, 2014 at 9:10 am

Very well written.  I was, however, momentarily confused by the claim that "corn and soybeans don't need plowing . . . ."  Then I realized you meant snow plowing.

I do think the District appears to have been a consistently good steward of its buildings when it comes to repurposing former schools.  This gives me confidence that it will make good use of the current Central building.

The District has also done a thorough job of objectively scoring alternate sites and determining that they don't measure up--on balance--as well as the Interstate Drive site.  While I enthusiastically agree that a renovation or new build closer to our community's urban core would be preferable if cost were even close, it certainly appears that cost in both dollars and time (in the case of eminent domain proceedings) would be prohibitive, while leaving the District open to a higher probability of encountering cost overruns and more surprises along the way.

Finally, while my user name reveals that I am currently a Mahomet resident, I pay tens of thousands of dollars of real estate taxes in the Unit 4 District and am very much a stakeholder in this debate.

ajclifford wrote on October 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Ms. Dodds is articulate and spot-on. I am Champaign born, raised and educated, having attended Dr. Howard, South Side, Edison, Centennial in its' opening year, and Central for three years until graduation at the Assembly Hall -- class of '67.

To her already well-written opinion I would like to add my concerns about how the selected location of the new high school will impact traffic on Prospect Avenue . . . it's already a nightmare.

I will join Ms. Dodds in voting "no" on the school referendum.

jsiess1 wrote on October 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm

I also would like to see the Dodds family allow the school at Dodds Park. It is a super location. The synergy possibilities with Parkland are exciting. Maybe the family would trade part of their park for some of the land already purchased on the north side. A great park there would benefit the city more than a school.


Think on it, Dodds....................


Judith Siess

CHS Class of 1965

CUTownie wrote on October 30, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Thank you for a well written and well thought out article.  I will be voting no on election day because of location.  I appreciate the timeline that was submitted by Unit 4 on the process of looking for a site.  It is unfortunate that the district was limited by the spirit of the consent decree to only property north of University.  While I do not think that the landlocked areas that were proposed would work either, it would have been interesting to see the cost of some of the available land in other areas of town for comparison sake.

rsp wrote on October 31, 2014 at 12:10 am

They weren't limited by University Ave for the high school, in fact they considered some land close to Savoy. The consent decree only affected adding grade school seats to the north side. It was settled before they talked about replacing the school. It affected the grade schools because they were only building them on the south side and expecting the AA kids to ride the bus but not the white kids.

byrdslover wrote on October 31, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Yes, it would be great to have the new Central located in town.  But, uh ... where exactly?  If the current building and site were a workable alternative for the growing student population, that work would have started years ago.

Since you and Cody seem to have unlimited amounts of cash and are buying up everything in downtown Champaign, why don't YOU TWO buy up all the in-town property needed for the new school and donate it?
Yeah, I didn't think so.

parentoftwohigschoolstudents wrote on November 02, 2014 at 8:11 am

I appreciate the comments here and support Ms Dodds sentiments. I am thankful to hear someone point out all the costs that aren't considered in the estimates presented by the district. 

The district's cost estimates don't include the time, gas, and vehicle cost for every family with students at the school that will be required to travel a much greater distance to and from the school grounds if not served by new CUMTD routes for the school day and for the many after-school engagements.  

Not to mention the tremendous infrastructure costs for transportation and basic services, as Dodd mentioned.

Those infrastructure and individual family costs don't have to be considered by the school board and it is short-sighted and dishonest for them not to consider the impact on the entire community, rather than only their budget. If we vote yes, we will be paying much more than the additional tax for the (unconstrained) school construction.