Champaign council hopeful's passion is preserving history


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CHAMPAIGN — When Pattsi Petrie, a candidate in Tuesday's election for an at-large Champaign City Council seat, was working on her master's degree in urban planning, she focused her dissertation on historical preservation.

That dissertation was the seed to what would later become one of Petrie's biggest projects and passions — the Preservation and Conservation Association, and the battle to preserve Champaign's cultural history.

Petrie, a longtime Champaign County Board member, said that when she saw that the county's history museum wasn't stepping forward to fight for endangered structures locally, she joined with four others to form PACA.

Their mission first and foremost is to try to preserve significant local structures, and if they can't, "to preserve what was in the structure and take as much history from it as we can."

"We don't have many architecturally significant structures left in this city," Petrie said. "Many of us are still distraught at the loss of the Burnham Mansion. I thought I had figured out how to stop something like this from happening with PACA, but it didn't go as planned. Best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as they say."

So when the opportunity came forward to run for a seat on the council — which she said has been presided over by lawyers, bankers, Realtors and others, but never an urban planner — she said she couldn't resist putting her name forward.

Many of the issues she has dealt with on the county level, she said, could be better addressed at the city level, with a smaller group of people, and the ability to have home rule and levy taxes if necessary. It's the kind of position she feels will give her more opportunities to meet the goals she set as a county board member.

It will also be an opportunity for her to implement some of the ideas she has had as debates raged over Clark Park and the possibility of a preservation district. What many saw as lively debates on side A and side B, Petrie said she saw as the consequences of an untried system mired in misinformation.

"It hasn't been tested before, so every time something is tested for the first time, it's always a rough road," Petrie said. "But there's a problem with the ordinance itself. Instead of saying this is the way an overlay zone should be, first you have to stabilize zoning so you know what you're overlaying. Clark Park, Glenn Park, the Sesquicentennial neighborhood, they all have different and interesting characteristics that should be preserved. So the question of 'why even have a preservation district in the ordinance' is a good one. If this doesn't work for Clark Park, then where does it work?"

Another top priority for Petrie is gun violence, which she said she has worked to mitigate while on the county board. "What's been done so far isn't working, that's very clear," she said, criticizing the six-year, $9 million ACCESS initiative started in 2009. Its legacy, she said, is not a great one.

"I think I can safely say from talking to people that there's concern that for that amount of money, what did we get from it?" Petrie said. "The next iteration of that was the community coalition, and the violence curve is still going on, so one would naturally want to step back and say, 'Are we being effective in this mode of community coalition?'"

Within the coalition is also Fresh Start, modeled after a program in Peoria. But Peoria and Champaign are not the same, Petrie said, who notes that resources in Peoria that help their gun violence initiative, like a fully funded mental health facility, point to why it was such a success there.

"We have a mental health board, a public health district and a county board of health," Petrie said. "There are only three counties that have a public health district. All this adds complexity in terms of how we move things forward. Everyone always points to each other to get it done. Once a month, they sit there and do whatever, when you could design a system where you leverage the money of all these different agencies to tackle a common goal.

"We talk and talk and talk, but no one is walking. We don't need to talk about it anymore. What we need people to do is admit that we have not been effective up to this point. We need a paradigm shift."