Guest Commentary: Do what's right for Champaign Central High

Guest Commentary: Do what's right for Champaign Central High

By KIP POPE

The Preservation & Conservation Association of Champaign County, commonly known as PACA, should be ashamed of itself for its unconscionable 11th-hour ambush against the Champaign school district's plan to renovate and expand Champaign Central High School and its related facilities.

As most local citizens are aware, Unit 4 has been working for years to make long-overdue and desperately needed improvements to its educational facilities. A central issue has been whether to keep Champaign Central High School at its present location or to replace it with a new facility elsewhere.

After two stinging defeats at the polls when Unit 4 planned to build a new high school north of Interstate 74, the vote swung from a 70-30 percent loss in the second referendum to a stunning 65-35 percent win in the third referendum after the school district decided to keep Central High School where it is and to expand its facilities into a surrounding neighborhood. It has been abundantly clear to all that the acquired properties would need to be cleared as a part of Unit 4's plans.

And yet, after all this, PACA filed applications only recently, seeking to have three of the properties essential to Unit 4's plans "designated" as historic "landmarks" under Champaign's historic-preservation ordinance and putting at risk the entire Central High School project.

Then, no doubt constrained by the ordinance's six preservation-oriented "criteria for designating landmarks," Champaign's planning staff recommended that the city's historic preservation commission recommend landmark status for the three properties, which it did on Nov. 2.

The problem is that under this ordinance, if a property is ultimately designated as a landmark, it cannot ever be demolished without permission from the same historic preservation commission or planning director that have just recommended designation.

Designation of these three properties would rob the project of more than 60 percent of its newly acquired properties, emasculating the entire project, and will force Unit 4 to go back to the drawing board regarding Central High School.

Wednesday night, the Champaign Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on these issues and the city council will later vote on them. I urge these bodies to carefully consider that designating these properties as landmarks would appear to conflict with Champaign's City Council's express 2015-2017 goals of being a "partner with local schools ... to strengthen educational opportunities" and to "support Unit 4 school district with their future facility planning."

So, I recommend the following actions:

1. PACA should withdraw its applications for the good of the community.

2. Barring that, the plan commission and the city council should vote to not designate these three properties as landmarks.

3. PACA's applications state that these properties have been recognized as historic properties as early as 1908. The preservation ordinance was passed more than 20 years ago. On a basis similar to the legal doctrine of "laches," where "a legal right or claim will not be ... allowed if a long delay in asserting the ... claim has prejudiced the adverse party" (lexisnexis.com), the city council could and should deny PACA's ill-timed nominations.

4. The city should consider amending the historic-preservation ordinance to exempt properties acquired for educational purposes from the burdens of the ordinance to avoid the potential enormous risk that PACA has imposed on the entire community in this case.

We can't have it both ways in this case.

I'm sorry to say: If PACA wins, the community loses.

Kip Pope, a local attorney, business owner and property owner, was the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce's representative on the city task force that reviewed Champaign's zoning ordinance in the 1990s when the historic-preservation ordinance was added. He is also a member of the Marajen Stevick Foundation board.