CHAMPAIGN — Upscale apartments could be going up this spring in a new development at the southern entrance to the University of Illinois Research Park, but a retail component faces a tougher financial hurdle, developers say.
Meanwhile, park managers are exploring whether to invest more than $200,000 in an extension of Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband network through the research park's newest phase to serve clients' growing data needs.
Plans for a retail-residential project at First Street and Windsor Road have been on the books for years but stalled in 2008 along with the economy. Conditions have improved, and construction of a major extension of Fourth Street through the park is nearing completion, opening up the east side of First to development between St. Mary's Road and Windsor.
Developer Peter Fox has been working with a university design review team on an 8-acre complex at First and Windsor.
Plans call for four residential buildings with 50-plus rental units set back from the corner, built around a water feature, and two retail buildings fronting First and Windsor with 10 units totaling 23,000 square feet. Site drawings unveiled this week show room for expansion to the north and east — two additional residential buildings and two more 7,200-square-foot retail buildings.
The design review committee requested that some residential units be placed above the retail space; that some buildings be three stories and include a brick exterior; and that the retail buildings be pushed close to the street, with parking in the back, to create more of a community feel, similar to the Village at the Crossing.
Fox also hopes to make the development energy-efficient, possibly achieving LEED certification. Designs call for geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels on the carports, high-density insulation, green roofs, and a sustainable storm-water retention system.
Fox hopes to have the residential portion completed by the fall of 2013. To do that, he said he'd need to break ground by February or March.
But he's less certain whether the retail portion makes financial sense, given potential competition in the area and high construction costs relative to retail leasing rates of $15 to $16 a square foot.
Cost projections from UI Facilities and Services for extending the university's gas, electric, water and sewer lines to the area came in much higher than expected — almost $977,000 compared with the $330,000 initially projected, said research park Director Laura Frerichs. The water feature in the current design requires a ring of utilities around the site, which pushed up the cost.
Under the development agreement between the research park and Fox/Atkins, the university is responsible for installing major utility lines and Fox/Atkins pays for connections to individual buildings. The UI then provides utility service for a fee.
But the research park is considering other more "creative" options, Frerichs said. That includes having a mix of UI and utility companies install the service, or having Fox/Atkins arrange service directly with the utility companies as with other commercial developments. In both, tenants would pay utility companies directly for service.
The latter option would involve no upfront investment by the UI, freeing up money for other infrastructure work, including broadband service, Frerichs said.
It could also push some upfront costs onto the developer, which could be partially offset by "tapping fees" paid by the research park or a temporary abatement of the developer's land-rent.
The options will be explored in coming weeks as the research park and Fox/Atkins work through other preliminary steps — including getting an appraisal for the land, which will determine how much Fox/Atkins will pay the UI in land-lease rates.
Frerichs said the retail-residential project will require approval from the Champaign Plan Commission and Champaign City Council.
Lorrie Pearson, land development manager for the city, said she hasn't received a formal application yet. Current zoning would allow retail development with residential units above, but not ground-floor apartments, she said.
The UI Board of Trustees also would have to approve the land-lease agreement.
Fox said the financial terms, at least, need to be resolved by the end of November so he can start construction in February or March, with the hope of opening the residential units by fall 2013. They would be a mix of apartments, townhouses and extended-stay units.
A survey of research park tenants in June showed 60 percent rent homes or apartments, and up to 74 percent showed interest in living nearby. Location was a top priority for 58 percent, topped only by price.
UI officials say there's also a demand for quality short-term housing for executives and professors visiting the park or the university, or employees recruited to the UI who need a temporary place to stay before they buy a home.
"We need the residential units. We need to create more retail options in the area," Fox said, but the question is whether the right retail mix can be found. He has yet to land an anchor tenant.
Fox is concerned about future development at Windsor and Neil, where WDWS is selling 10.3 acres of land, and at Worden-Martin, which plans to move from its Neil Street location to the North Prospect area.
"Clearly those two parcels are arguably more desirable from a retail standpoint," Fox said. "We'll see in the next month or two whether we can work out a fair deal with the university."
Regarding broadband service, Frerichs said it would cost an estimated $215,000 to install fiber-optic cable up and down the new Fourth Street extension and Gerty Drive and connect the park's newest phase to the Big Broadband project.
The $22 million federally funded project, known as UC2B, is providing free broadband service to schools, hospitals and undeserved areas of Champaign-Urbana and Savoy.
A private firm, CTC, is connecting the I Hotel and older research park buildings to a nearby Big Broadband line, but CTC will then be the exclusive telecom provider, Frerichs said.
For Phase 4, the research park could connect to one of the Big Broadband junctions along St. Mary's Road, allowing Fox/Atkins to connect individual buildings at a much cheaper cost and giving companies in the park far more choice in telecom providers.
The capability would be extremely attractive to future park tenants and "put us in a competitively interesting space," Frerichs said.
Board members agreed, and Frerichs got the go-ahead from park managers to explore the broadband extension as well as the various utility options.
"This is very exciting," said board member Rod Johnson, adding, "I don't know how economically viable it is."