DANVILLE — While Danville High School draws thousands of visitors for school and community events each year, school district and city officials say its campus doesn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for guests.
Now the city is gearing up for the first phase of a project that will make the area easier to use, improve safety and aesthetics and bring the project site into compliance with the city's storm-water management and parking lot ordinances and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
School officials are pleased with the design plans and even more pleased that the long-awaited improvements are set to begin next year.
"Danville High School is our flagship school and a focal point in the community," said Superintendent Mark Denman, who envisions the school grounds looking more like a community college campus and providing "an atmosphere that better reflects our mission of education."
Denman said the project will expand the area's use and begin to soften the look around the high school.
"It will provide green spaces, sidewalks, lighting, trees for shade and areas for people to gather before and after events," he said, adding that football and basketball games, the Viking Invitational marching band competition, the Midwest Classic show choir competition and other events draw thousands.
And each year, officials said, the school's Dick Van Dyke Auditorium hosts on average 20 community events, including Danville Symphony Orchestra, Danville Light Opera and local dance troupe performances and Lakeview College of Nursing's graduation ceremonies.
"That will make the area more inviting to students and visitors, and give people a good first impression of the school and the community," Denman continued.
The work — which includes improving storm-water management, parking, traffic flow for vehicles and pedestrians, safety and aesthetics — will be paid for with a $750,000 federal grant funneled through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and money from the city's Midtown Tax Increment Financing District fund.
School and city officials hope that the publicly-funded improvements will eventually spark private investment ranging from beautification projects to new business and housing development in the nearby neighborhood, which has become blighted.
"All of the improvements in the TIF district will not only improve the look of the area," said Christopher Milliken, the city's planning and zoning manager. "Hopefully they will improve the tax base, which will be a benefit to the city, the school district and all of the other taxing bodies in that area today and in the future."
The Phase I project area, west of the high school's field house, is bordered by Clay, Woodbury, Jackson and Hazel streets. The western portion is a grassy field used for overflow parking. The eastern portion is an asphalt parking lot used mostly by students on school days and visitors during school and community events. The marching band also practices on the paved portion.
The area has very poor drainage, said David Schnelle, the city's urban services director.
When it rains, "Jackson Street floods, and it's difficult to get across the street to the high school," he said.
School staff, students, parents, and groups that use the auditorium also suggested other improvements, including designating a specific student drop-off area, adding more lighting, landscaping the area and turning the grassy area into a practice field for the marching band.
"We took their suggestions and came up with some ideas for them to consider," said Schnelle, whose department has been working on designs conceptually for about three years and in earnest since getting the grant.
According to the IEPA, when rain hits the ground and flows across streets, parking lots, yards, construction sites, farm fields and golf courses, it picks up pollutants — including oil, grease, metals, rubber, fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, litter and more — and washes them into lakes, rivers, wetlands and even underground sources of drinking water.
In July 2011, the agency awarded $5 million in grants to 14 communities to reduce erosion and the amount of pollution running into Illinois waterways from storm-water sources. Danville's award was the second-largest.
Danville engineers designed a drainage and irrigation system, in which storm water that runs onto the practice field will flow through a series of trench drains into an underground storm sewer. The water will be stored there and recycled to irrigate the field, as needed.
"By doing that, we'll minimize the cost of watering the field as well as conserve resources," Schnelle said.
Run-off that's not collected underground will go into landscaped infiltration basins in the parking lot.
"Most of the pollutants appear in the first part of that rain event," Schnelle said. "We're trying to get the first flush into the infiltration basin. As the water goes through the soil and the plants, that will help clean the water before it eventually goes into a storm sewer and into Stoney Creek and reduce erosion."
The practice field, which slopes, will be graded and covered with an engineered field turf, which will have a 6-inch sand-and-fiber base to make it more resistant to rutting and able to withstand a heavier traffic load from school buses and other vehicles, Schnelle said. The field will continue to be used for overflow parking.
The regulation-size field will give the marching band a chance to practice on grass and eliminate disruptions to practice. Currently, after-school practice on the parking lot is delayed until all of the cars are cleared.
Officials said the venue can host other school-related events such as an outdoor concert.
The parking lot will be rebuilt to preserve as much of the existing lot as possible.
"We're going to use existing curbing and sidewalks where possible," Schnelle said, adding that will contain costs.
"As for parking reconfiguration, most of it will be a matter of restriping," he continued, adding the lot will have 184 spaces. Five handicapped spots will be created across Jackson Street directly in front of the field house to meet ADA requirements.
The parking lot will have a combination of physical barriers, landscaping and marked crosswalks to channel pedestrian traffic safely from the lot across busy Jackson Street to the school.
Currently, "people cross wherever they want to," Schnelle said. Under the new design, "we'll have two points of crossing rather than a free-for-all across the street."
Crosswalks on Jackson Street — along with existing pavement markings — will serve as a visual cue to motorists to watch out and slow down for pedestrians.
In addition, a designated student drop-off zone will be on the north side of Woodbury Street.
"Right now, there isn't one," Schnelle said. "Parents kind of park along Jackson Street wherever they can fit."
The landscaping aims to beautify the area, using trees and plants that are both functional and low maintenance, and bring the parking lot into compliance with the city's parking lot ordinance.
"Now the area is pretty stark and sterile," said Steve Lane, the city's special services superintendent. "This really greens it up and adds a lot of color."
Sweet gum, swamp white oak and state street maple trees will be planted along the perimeter of the project area, while ornamental trees will be planted in the parking lot islands. They will provide shade, beauty and filter particles in the air, Lane said.
"Trees also have a calming effect on traffic," he added.
Flame grass, an ornamental grass, will be planted along the south side of the practice field. Native grasses and wildflowers will be planted in dry basins, or bioswale areas, along the north and east sides.
"They really do not require much care either, especially once they're established," Lane said, adding they will do well in wet and dry conditions and only have to be cut back once a year. "They will help filter run-off. They will also help control foot traffic and force students to use the pathways and ultimately the crosswalks."
Schnelle said the existing wooden light poles will be replaced with energy-efficient lighting, which will match lighting on Fairchild Street.
City officials hope to bid the project early next year and start the work in the spring. If all goes as planned, the practice field will be ready to use next fall.
Schnelle said city officials are still calculating project costs. While the majority will be covered by the grant, the local match will be paid for with Midtown tax-increment funds.
The city will also provide in-kind services, including engineering work and construction management. "There may be other opportunities as well," Schnelle said. "Once we bid the project, the city can do the landscaping and even some of the electrical work."
Before the Midtown TIF district was established, the school district already had taken steps to improve the area by purchasing and demolishing some of the dilapidated homes west of the school and expanding parking, as funds allowed.
The city established the TIF district in 2005, and the school board signed off on it, to spur redevelopment along the high school corridor and throughout a larger area bounded by Jackson, Gilbert, Fairchild, Seminary and Williams streets.
"We want the area to have a new, more vibrant look that will be beneficial to both the city and the school district," said John Heckler, the city's public development director. "A lot of people travel through that area to get to work or to go to the high school for school and community events. And the local school system is one of the main things potential businesses and residents look at when they're considering whether to come into a community."
Once a TIF district is designated, a base-year tax assessment is made and assessments are frozen at that level for other governments during the life of the district, typically 23 years. As development occurs, property values will increase. As assessments increase, the tax increment — the difference between the base amount and the increased amount — is invested back into the district for redevelopment projects.
TIF money has helped with the conversion of the old Shop Rite grocery store to the Carle Clinic facility, the relocation of T.H Synder Co. and the construction of the Mach 1 gas station, the new Social Security building and the Walgreens at Gilbert and Fairchild streets, as well as smaller projects.
"As a group, they're doing a lot for the district — not only improving the look, but also improving the tax base," Milliken said, adding the district's equalized assessed valuation of property has grown from about $9.7 million to about $13.7 million.
While roughly $900,000 in tax increment has been diverted from the school district in the last few years, city officials estimate, this will be the first time that TIF funds will be used specifically for high school corridor improvements.
"Hopefully, the improvements will snowball and stimulate other revitalization activities in the area," Heckler said.
Denman said he would like to see some new businesses and homes built on some of the abandoned lots. "It would be a good place for a restaurant," he added.
While school and city officials hope to make more campus improvements, they said future phases will depend on funding.
"We'll seek out grant opportunities as they become available," Schnelle said.
The Phase II project area is a gravel parking lot, used by staff and visitors, just north of the Phase I project area. It's bordered by Woodbury, Fairchild, Jackson and Hazel streets.
"We have similar goals — provide adequate parking, doing a better job of channeling pedestrian traffic and bringing the site into compliance with storm-water management, landscaping and ADA requirements," Schnelle said.
Schnelle said the city has applied for state funding to create a shared-use path on Fairchild Street, which would go from the new overpass that's being built to Jackson Street and then north on Jackson Street to English Street. That would add pedestrian protection along busy Fairchild Street.
"Part of that project would connect to Danville High School," Schnelle said, adding that would add aesthetic improvements along Fairchild Street that would match what's being done in the parking lot.
A fourth phase could take place on school grounds north of Fairchild Street. The school has a couple of parking lots there, and the district has been buying up vacant lots in the area to expand parking and make more improvements one day.
"Re-creating those parking lots would be a way to link the high school to the new track-and-field facility," Schnelle said.