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Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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There’s a big focus on the city of Champaign in this week’s mailbag: the groundbreaking for a new downtown hotel, a new tenant for an old music venue, a street-lighting request, the bygone GoFundMe campaign for the now-demolished Burnham Mansion, an apartment building being razed, Elite Entertainment and an update on the Yards project.

Also, questions about a water company property in Urbana, Rantoul Foods’ expansion, the location of Rantoul’s proposed sports complex and where Brendt Christensen will serve his life sentence.


bag neil and hill hotel map

New downtown Champaign hotel

“What’s the latest on the proposed hotel at Hill and Neil in downtown Champaign? The last report was that they were doing soil sampling, but that was months ago. The only thing at the lot seems to be piles of rocks. Any idea when construction will begin?”

Good news from Bruce Knight, Champaign’s planning and development director.

A groundbreaking is scheduled for 1 p.m. next Friday, Oct. 18, for the new Marriott Aloft hotel at 401 N. Neil St.

“Construction will begin shortly thereafter,” he said.

The developer of the seven-story, 132-room boutique hotel is former Illinois basketball star Doug Altenberger, who now lives in Barrington, according to Rob Kowalski, assistant planning and development director with the city.

Coincidentally, next weekend is homecoming at the UI.

The first floor of the hotel, which will face Hill Street, will include a lobby and a lounge known as the WXYZ Bar.

Under a parking agreement with the city of Champaign, hotel parking will be across the street on the sixth floor of the Hill Street parking deck. Seventy percent of the rooms will be king rooms and 30 percent will be queen-queen rooms (two queen beds), Kowalksi said.

A cost estimate for the project has not been released.

The Neil and Hill site once was the home of Champaign’s premier place of lodging, the Beardsley Hotel. That’s where the Champaign Rotary Club was organized and where postseason University of Illinois football banquets were held 100 years ago.

In 1939, it became the Hotel Tilden-Hall. It was demolished in 1967.


bag High Dive Mem

Downtown Champaign live music

“Are there any current plans for the former High Dive (Accord/51 Main) and Memphis on Main buildings? It was so sad to see those venues go, especially now that Cowboy Monkey removed its stage as well. It’s sad to see Champaign’s live music venues dying (at least with places that can hold more than an acoustic duo), though props to Urbana for keeping it going.”

More good news from Alan Nudo, a Berkshire Hathaway real-estate agent who represents the two buildings, which are owned by Dr. William Youngerman.

“We are finalizing plans for a major announcement for the 51-53 E. Main buildings (High Dive and Memphis). The use will be a very positive addition to the east end of downtown,” he said. “The 57 Main building (formerly Derailed) would be a good venue for music, and it is available for lease.”

Nudo noted that another tenant, Pour Brothers at 40 E. University Ave., has live bluegrass music year-round. For example, Harvest Sons will play in its courtyard concert series from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday.


Water company property

“What is the future of the old water company property on Bradley Avenue in Urbana, just west of Lincoln Avenue? Having watched their facility near Lincoln and University be redeveloped, will the northern property see a similar fate? And what is the timeline for the land to be available?”

The property is in the process of being sold, said Karen Cotton, a spokeswoman for the utility.

“We expect to close on the sale later this month. The buyers would be the ones to share their plans for the property,” she said.

The buyers have not been disclosed.


Christensen imprisonment

“Where did Brendt Christensen get jail assignment for his life sentence?”

Christensen, who in July was sentenced to life in federal prison for the 2017 murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, is still not in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, according to the bureau’s website. That’s not unusual, said Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield.

Steve Beckett, an Urbana attorney who represented the family of the murdered student, postulated that the delay is because the bureau has had to go beyond its normal means in developing a classification for Christensen’s imprisonment.

“Ordinarily, a federal defendant has a presentence report and a sentencing process that occurs over the period of 3 to 4 months,” he said. “In Christensen’s case, he was sentenced immediately without a presentence report or the normal process associated with sentencing. My guess is that BOP uses the presentence report in its classification process and had to reach out for other sources of information to fill in the missing information.”


Local fertility clinic

“I was wondering if there is currently a plan through Carle to open a fertility clinic in C-U. I’m in my early 30s and have had quite a few close friends and acquaintances have to use IVF treatments to get pregnant. To my knowledge, Dr. (John) Jarrett meets with patients through Carle once a month and then the patients are referred to his clinic in Indianapolis. This means that patients have to go to multiple appointments in another time zone, two hours away, or they have to deal with Chicago traffic, or they have to drive three hours to St. Louis. You would think that having a clinic here would be much more convenient for patients already dealing with an extremely stressful and emotional process, as well as bringing in quite a bit of money for Carle. Any news on if/when they plan to pursue this? Thank you!

From Teresa Majers, a nurse practitioner in reproductive medicine at Carle:

“Carle offers extensive local support for families trying to conceive. The majority of pre-planning, counseling and education take place at Carle to minimize the amount of travel required. Carle has an established reproductive-medicine team consisting of physicians and experienced advance practice providers, a clinical psychologist and a full-service andrology lab who can provide reproductive services including insemination and semen cryopreservation right here in our community.

“Carle’s facilities include an in vitro fertilization (IVF) lab and an embryology lab with a dedicated director, and we are currently recruiting for a full-time reproductive endocrinologist.

“However, at this time, some surgical procedures related to egg retrieval do require a trip to Indianapolis or another clinic of the patient’s choice.”


bag The Yards

Yards update

“What’s the latest on The Yards downtown Champaign development project? I feel like it has the capacity to transform downtown and have an overall positive impact on the entire Champaign-Urbana community. I’m eager for the project to move forward and construction to begin.”

Key to the proposed development just south of downtown Champaign, said Bruce Knight, the city's planning and development director, is the University of Illinois’ decision on starting a Division I hockey program.

You may have seen a story in Friday’s News-Gazette about UI athletic director Josh Whitman’s comments about the hockey program.

“It’s been a long and winding road that continues to be long and winding,” Whitman said Thursday at Busey’s 67th Economic Forum.

Here are Knight’s comments:“I agree with the writer of the mailbag question that this is a project that would be transformational for the whole community. We continue to work on negotiating the series of agreements necessary to facilitate The Yards development and are making progress.

“This is a very complicated project, so working through all the details is taking longer than originally hoped. It does not require waiting to hear about whether MTD receives one or both of the federal grants they applied for, as the MTD board has committed to making a $25 million investment even if they don’t, using annual federal formula money they receive as well as sale of bonds.

“A key component to the project is the decision by the U of I Division of Intercollegiate Athletics on whether they will add D1 hockey or not. Once that decision is made, I believe the city, MTD and developer will be able to finalize our deals in relative short order.”


bag Univ St closing

Construction area parking

“On West University Avenue and just west of the new Dr. Howard School, there are several houses with street access completely blocked by street construction for weeks or months. Have these residents been helped or compensated in any way, or have they just been left cut off and on their own?”

The work taking place on University Avenue and Church Street west of Dr. Howard School is related to Phase 3 of the West Washington Street Drainage Improvement Project, said Kris Koester, spokesman for Champaign’s public works department.

“The city recognizes the inconvenience caused by large construction projects and coordinates with adjacent property owners to minimize the impacts of construction, which may include driveway closures to homes or businesses,” he said. “While no financial compensation is provided, all property owners affected by the closures are notified about what to expect. Project management staff work with impacted property owners to address access issues and provide special assistance as situations arise. For the West Washington Drainage Project in particular, nearby parking spaces were reserved for property owners on the affected blocks.”


Slow-down signs?

“How does a person ask the city of Champaign to put up slow-down signs? I ask because there are cars that seem to fly down the residential road I live on with kids playing nearby.”

The city does not install "SLOW / Children Playing" signs for a few reasons, said Koester.

“The signs are not approved for use in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a federal manual state and local agencies follow when placing traffic signs,” he said. “According to the American Public Works Association, studies have shown that ‘Children at Play’ signs do not reduce traffic speeds or make drivers more observant. All residential areas have children present and playing along the street at some point, which would lead to eventually installing such signs on every street.

“The city does have a couple of ways to respond to concerns regarding speeding in residential areas. The Champaign Police Department has a speed feedback trailer that can be placed on a given street for a period of time to make drivers more aware of their speed. The other option is to request speed enforcement in your neighborhood.”


bag No streetlights Willis

Street-lighting request

“Why aren’t their streetlights on any streets north of West Vine, by the train tracks, and west of Prospect Avenue (in Champaign)? I believe the streets lacking proper lighting are West Maple, West Harvard, West Tremont, West Eureka, West Beardsley and North Willis. I know this is concerning to myself, as well as a few neighbors that I’ve talked to that are also living in this area, due to the high rate of crime/drug activity in the area, especially at night. Who should this community get in contact with to get the proper street lighting equipment installed?”

“The city of Champaign Public Works Department is the best starting point for residents interested in getting streetlights installed in their neighborhood,” Koester said. “Public Works staff can explain the process for getting new streetlights installed and the associated costs. Per the city council’s Policy for Infrastructure Cost Sharing, the full cost for a new neighborhood street-lighting system would be assessed 100 percent to the residents within the neighborhood.

“To reduce financial burden, the streetlight costs would be spread out over a 10-year period by establishing a Special Services Area for the neighborhood. Because of the financial impact of new street lighting, it is important that a substantial majority of residents in a neighborhood support the project. Substantial majority could be demonstrated by circulating a petition and obtaining signatures of two-thirds to three-fourths (67 percent to 75 percent) of the property owners within the street-lighting area. The Public Works Department can assist residents in developing a petition for circulation in their neighborhood.”


Kirby-Florida corridor

“Kirby Avenue between Neil and Lincoln has been is bad condition for years. Everything from a crumbling median to potholes. When compared to other universities, this main strip for athletics is the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m curious as to who is responsible for making this area of road look appealing? The city or the university? Or is it a team effort?”

“The short answer is a combination of the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University (of Illinois). The corridor of Kirby Avenue between Lincoln and Neil is maintained by a combination of the university, city of Urbana and city of Champaign,” Koester said. “The city of Urbana section is between Lincoln and Wright (or the east side of Illinois Field) and the city of Champaign section is from that point west. In the Champaign section, the city maintains the pavement, pavement marking, signs and the curb/gutter. The university owns and maintains the sidewalks, street lighting and the landscaping (grass) within the median in the Champaign section.

“The city’s main responsibility is the pavement. This section of Kirby competes with all of the other arterial class streets throughout the city for resurfacing funding, and there are more needs than funding. Because of this, there are streets we would like to work on now that have to wait. The city updates its work plan every spring to identify the work locations in most need of the annual maintenance dollars. The work locations are based on the condition of the pavement. As examples, the work on Bradley between State and Fifth and the work next year on Windsor between Prospect and Mattis were prioritized higher than Kirby Avenue due to the condition of the pavement.”


bag Rantoul sports complex

Rantoul sports complex

“Where exactly will the new sports complex be in Rantoul? Any existing roads?”

It will be located south of the Rantoul Walmart, which is in the southeast quadrant of the Interstate 57-U.S. 136 interchange in Rantoul.

“Specifically, the acreage directly south of Stonebridge Drive, west of Murray Road, east of I-57,” said Luke Humphrey, director of Rantoul’s Recreation Department.

The property is owned by the Warner family, and Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said he expects a verbal agreement to purchase the land later this month.


bag Fourth and John

Campustown construction

“There was what looked to be a house being built on campus at the corner of Fourth and John. For most of the summer, construction moved along. Then towards the end, right as the place looked close to being finished, it seemed to have become abandoned. Tonight, as I drove past, I saw that demolition is now occurring. Can you shed any light on 1) what the building was and 2) why the new construction is being demolished?”

The building at 801 S. Fourth St. most recently was an apartment building, said Randy Smith, building safety supervisor for the city of Champaign. There was no new construction at the site.

“Your reader might have seen work being done to prepare the building for demolition, or it might have been related to the new construction north of John Street,” he said.

There are no building plans for the site at this time, Smith said.


bag Rantoul Foods

Rantoul Foods expansion

“In the building permits listed in The News-Gazette on Sundays, I have noticed in the past month that Rantoul Foods has had several building permits and each permit is several millions of dollars. What are they doing at Rantoul Foods?”

Rantoul Foods, a pork-processing facility, is building an addition to the plant on its south side, said Rantoul building safety staffer Bob Ward.

“They are adding a blast freezer area along with more storage and a new break-room area. There is about 30,000 square feet in area with this new addition,” he said.

Total value of the addition is around $16 million, Ward said.


bag Burnham Mansion demo

Burnham Mansion donations

“I was one of the fools who donated money to an online GoFundMe campaign designed to save the Burnham Mansion from demolition. Obviously, that effort failed. I’m writing because preservationist Chris Enck was quoted in your paper on 07/24/2018 as saying he 'plans to return that money.' When exactly will I see my $100?”

Enck said you should have received a notice about getting your donation refunded. In any case, he is still doing so, he said.

“A lot of people did so and got their money back,” he said.

To do so, Enck said, go to the original campaign at gofundme.com/f/moving-the-burnham-mansion, scroll down to "Organizer" and click on the "Contact" button next to his name to request a refund.

“When Unit 4 (school district) terminated the Burnham project, there were significant losses for expenses paid toward the effort, but these were covered by our project team and not the GoFundMe contributions,” he said.

Any money not refunded will go toward a local project, still to be determined, that is being worked on by the local Preservation and Conservation Association and Landmarks Illinois, said Enck.

“We wanted to make sure that any GoFundMe contributions that were not requested back go toward something to benefit preservation, education and the community so something positive can come from the loss of the building. We hope to have an update on this soon, so stay tuned,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that the already unfortunate end to the project didn’t come across like anyone profited from the online effort.”


bag Elite Entertainment

Elite Entertainment

“What’s with the storage-type building at 3809 W. Springfield Ave. that advertises Elite Entertainment?”

It’s a storage building for Elite Entertainment, which puts on special events, including wedding receptions.

“That’s just the building where we store things like DJ equipment and trailers and vans and chairs,” said Ryan Mennenga of Elite Entertainment.


bag Spfld Liquor Store

New liquor store

“A new liquor store has opened at Springfield Avenue and Kenwood Road. Since then, there have been many people in the parking lot seeming to just be hanging out. Then there was the incident of a car running over people there. This seems like a horrible place to put such an establishment. Is the city keeping its eye on it to make sure the crime rate doesn’t rise due to this?”

Examining the consistency of the proposed location with the city’s zoning requirements is a standard part of the internal review process on any liquor-license application, said Matt Roschley, the deputy city manager in Champaign.

“If the proposed location for a liquor establishment does not comply with zoning requirements, the city does not issue a liquor license,” he said.

“With regard to the question about ‘keeping an eye on’ a particular business, my response is that — in general — the city addresses concerns with liquor licensees on a case-by-case basis, typically based on complaints or compliance checks performed by (the police department). If there are ongoing violations of the terms of the liquor license, the city will be in regular contact with that licensee and take appropriate actions until the issues resolve, up to and including fines, suspension, or revocation of the liquor license.”