Guest Commentary: City planners left out in cold

Guest Commentary: City planners left out in cold


The Champaign Plan Commission's Nov. 15 meeting was the longest in recent memory. At issue was the proposed historic landmark designation of three buildings purchased by Unit 4 and slated for demolition as part of Central High School's renovation and expansion. Unit 4 squared off against the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County, the group that nominated the properties. Supporters on both sides accused the other of a lack of good faith and transparency along with inadequate attention to process. The City of Champaign, which in my mind is the party directly responsible for this debacle, escaped unscathed.

The current debate goes back to Unit 4's ill-fated 2014 purchase of acreage on the northern edge of town, where it envisioned a suburban-style high school with 1,500 parking spaces and every type of field imaginable. Around the time of the first bond referendum, I attended the roll-out of Champaign's new Comprehensive Plan, which touted an anti-sprawl, smart growth, sustainability and walkability focus. I remarked to several council members that Unit 4's school site would torpedo that plan, and I asked why the city did not apply its zoning ordinance to the school siting and design process. That discussion went nowhere. Thanks to the voters, the city dodged that bullet twice, when two consecutive referenda pegged to the interstate high school location were defeated.

The voters approved the third referendum, to the tune of about $180 million, with its commitment to Keep Central Central and undertake an infill redevelopment project. I once again approached elected officials to encourage them to amend the law to ensure city input into that project. Several council members expressed support, but no action was taken.

The City of Champaign spends $4 million a year on its planning department. It is money well spent — the planning staff is professional, expert and passionate about making Champaign the best community possible. In the 30-plus years I have been on the Plan Commission, we have spent untold hours reviewing staff's painstaking reports and recommendations on numerous development proposals.

Yet in terms of their impact on the City of Champaign, most of those projects paled in comparison to the redevelopment of Central High School. This is a multi-block project involving major land assemblage, vacation of a city street, and expansion of an institutional use. Nearly 2000 people will come and go on a daily basis, yet our Planning Department will have no role in the redevelopment process. For reasons I cannot fathom, Champaign has drawn an invisible line around the entire Central site and told our planners not to cross it. A major in-town redevelopment project with no planning review simply makes no sense. The preservation and expansion of Central does not require immunity from city ordinances. Applying the zoning ordinance to Unit 4 would no more interfere with the district's educational mission than applying the ordinance to Carle's many projects interferes with its health care mission. Neither Carle nor Unit 4 employs land-use planners, and it is irrational to suggest that because they are important to our community, they should be able to build wherever and in whatever way they wish.

As it turned out, planners did get involved in the Central project, but only in the most oblique of ways. The process that unfolded, through no fault of the staff, was the antithesis of good planning. One small piece of a large redevelopment project was considered in isolation and without the important context of the overall plan. This was not the typical proactive, considered planning process; it was simply reactive to a crisis of the city's own making.

Had the city's zoning ordinance applied to this project, as is well within its legal authority, the last-minute collision between education and conservation could have been averted. The district's proposed project would have been subject to the same process as other redevelopment plans, with plenty of opportunity for staff review and study, as well as public input.

Though the council's upcoming decision on landmark status is likely a foregone conclusion, there is still much at stake. I urge our elected officials to direct staff to draft proposals for ways in which Champaign's zoning ordinance could apply to school district building projects. Though we are currently focused on Central, other Unit 4 sites are squeezed into residential neighborhoods where redevelopment and repurposing are possible. The council should act now to ensure that those projects, if and when they occur, comply with the city's zoning code, redevelopment regulations, and participatory procedures.

Laurie Reynolds is professor emerita at the University of Illinois College of Law.

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pattsi wrote on December 03, 2017 at 7:12 pm

Well argued, as always Laurie.

rsp wrote on December 05, 2017 at 9:12 am

I suspect it's an issue of one government body not wanting to interfere with another government body. Maybe more of an intergovernmental agreement of best practices?