CHAMPAIGN — First things first: There's no word on a Trader Joe's.
But a key entrance to the University of Illinois Research Park could soon feature apartments, restaurants and retail stores targeting professionals who work at the park.
The easing of the recession and the extension of Fourth Street south to Windsor Road are paving the way for new development in the park's next phase east of First Street.
A university design review committee recently started working with Fox/Atkins, the development firm that manages the park, on plans for a residential-retail center on the northeast corner of First Street and Windsor Road.
Developers were ready to move forward with the retail center in 2008, but the effort stalled with the economy, said research park Director Laura Frerichs.
Conditions are slightly better now, according to developer Peter Fox, and construction started last month on the extension of Fourth Street through the park from St. Mary's Road to Windsor. Two cross streets, Hazelwood and Gerty drives, also will be extended east across First to the new Fourth Street, opening up those sections for development.
Fox is still cautious about the timeline, given the economy. But road construction is moving quickly and Frerichs said it's conceivable work on the retail/residential development could start by late 2012.
Previous iterations of the master plan didn't include apartments, but UI officials have discussed a mixed-use approach for the park to "allow more of a lifestyle community," Frerichs said. Developers pounded that theme in 2010-11 when the research park's board of managers was awarding a new 10-year development agreement for the park.
"Some other campuses have moved in that direction," said Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo, who is on the design review panel with Frerichs. Having quality housing, retail and entertainment nearby for visiting faculty and researchers "makes the research park that much more attractive to business, which is good for us," he said.
Tenants have made clear that they want more restaurants and other amenities within walking distance, Frerichs said. And Fox believes there's a need for quality short-term housing for executives and professors visiting the park or employees recruited to the university who need a temporary place to stay before they buy a home.
"Clients have responded favorably to the idea of having more walkable retail and residential within the facility," Frerichs said, noting that workers from other countries don't always have driver's licenses.
The complex would be modest — Fox envisions 45 to 50 rental units and 25,000 to 30,000 square feet of retail space on 7 to 10 acres of land. He estimated the cost at $10 million.
What sort of retail? Restaurants for sure, and maybe a dry cleaner, bank branch and FedEx-type office, Frerichs said. She said she would love to see an upscale grocery store, and she's not alone.
"If I had a dollar for every time someone said they want to see a Trader Joe's in this town and the research park would be the perfect place for it, I might have one constructed," Frerichs said, adding that the company hasn't considered a move to the Champaign-Urbana market despite numerous overtures from developers.
Fox said he would like the retail center to appeal to traffic on First, Fourth and Windsor as well, since the number of apartment residents alone won't support it.
The rental housing would target those working in the park or other professionals — not students, Frerichs said.
"I think that would be inconsistent with what we're trying to do," Fox said.
Fox envisions apartments and perhaps some townhomes, with a few extended-stay units offering services from the I Hotel on St. Mary's Road, which his firm owns. Often, visiting executives need to stay for longer than a week, Frerichs said.
"We think there's any number of people who work in the park, if it's done correctly, who'd seriously consider it," Fox said.
The design will fit in with the style of the campus and research park, DeLorenzo said, but will have "a unique, more modern look," according to Fox. Both emphasized it will not be a "strip mall."
"We just want to build something that's very attractive and also begins to serve as a southern entrance to the research park," Fox said.
The research park's board of managers discussed the general project in June, when it updated the master plan for the 160 acres east of First Street. The UI design review committee plans three meetings, starting in mid-August, to look at more detailed site plans. The process will likely take several months.
Any plans would also require approval from the Champaign Plan Commission and the Champaign City Council, Frerichs said.
One of the challenges is building something that's attractive yet affordable, Fox said. He's not concerned about filling the residential units, but retail is another story.
"There's an awful lot of retail pockets in the community," he said.
The economic climate is improving, he said, but construction expenses are still high because of labor costs, relative to what developers can charge in rent — roughly $15 to $16 a square foot.
Under the development agreement, Fox/Atkins would pay construction costs and manage the center. The UI would install major utility lines and Fox/Atkins would pay for connections to individual buildings.
"We want to do this because the park needs it. It needs some diversity; it needs some other amenities. We've just got to figure out a way to make it work economically," Fox said.
Frerichs said it's possible construction could start by this fall, but other considerations are weighing on developers, including filling up space at the existing research park buildings on the 45 acres west of First Street. The park generally has had 85 percent occupancy through its first decade, she said, and developers have met the UI's requirement of building 100,000 square feet of space every three years.
The Atkins Building, 1800 S. Oak St., C, (formerly the Motorola/Gateway Building) is about 65 percent occupied, and Fox said he'd be ready to begin building east of First once that number reaches 75 or 80 percent. High on the list is a three-story "signature building" just south of the hotel and conference center.
The master plan also shows two large buildings slated for "university-oriented use" at the north end of the park, near the I Hotel and Conference Center. DeLorenzo and others said there are no specific plans for those buildings, but it made sense to reserve them for university use given their proximity to the Assembly Hall.
Fox has led the effort for a new ice arena just southeast of the hotel, but "it's not very far along at this point," he said last week. UI athletic officials are focused on the upcoming renovation of the UI Assembly Hall, Fox said.
The contractor working on the road extensions has made "fantastic progress" to date and it's possible the paving could be completed before the end of 2012, but that depends on weather and other factors, said Chris Sokolowski, project manager for the city of Champaign. The contract extends through September 2013.
Bids for the state-funded project came in about $1 million lower than expected, allowing the addition of the Gerty and Hazelwood drive extensions, he said. The savings will also finance more bike paths, sidewalks and landscaping, Frerichs said.
This story appeared in print on July 15.