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CHAMPAIGN — City council members unanimously approved the initial phase of the Garden Hills Drainage Improvement project Tuesday, in which 46 houses along Hedge Road will be demolished to make way for a detention basin.

The goal of the project is to reshape the blighted, majority-black neighborhood — where the average home value is $47,000 — by improving water retention, stormwater management and landscaping, as well as by adding much-needed streetlights and sidewalks.

The beginning phase of the project will focus on acquiring the 46 properties slated for demolition and relocating the inhabitants. After demolition, the space will be left as an open field — ready for development once the council finds funding for the rest of the project.

But the first stage alone could take years, Mayor Deb Feinen said.

City staff said Tuesday they are ready to send out notices to all of the affected addresses by the month's end. They said that within the next year and a half, they will work with each tenant and property owner to make sure they relocate and are given what they are entitled to under the project plan.

Payments for each property will be determined on a case-by-case basis, said city staff, who will be working with a $4 million budget. And they said the second of the project's five phases may not begin until 2030.

For Amy Revilla, who has lived in Garden Hills for 30 years, that isn't soon enough.

"The houses on Hedge Road are valued at $47,000 now, but where do you think they'll be in 16 years if they're affected by the flooding?" Revilla asked the council during Tuesday's meeting. "We can't wait this long. This project was introduced to you more than five years ago, and now we're looking at 16 years?"

Revilla admitted that the drainage project is large yet urged the council to consider putting other things "on the back burner" and put the Garden Hills project as a top priority. She said she was also concerned about the prospect of an open field, as she said it will be used as "a parking lot and dumping ground."

Chad Smith, who also lives in Garden Hills, shared Revilla's desire to move the project forward.

"The neighborhood cannot withstand 10 to 15 more years of continual flooding," Smith said. "And unfortunately, it's going to take a tragedy in order for you to make this a priority. With all the other projects that get so much attention, I don't see how there's not something we can do to move this up."

Council members Angie Brix, Matt Gladney, Will Kyles, Greg Stock and Clarissa Fourman said they would all like for city staff to focus on finding funding in order to potentially move the project's time frame forward. Others on the council agreed. 

Brix said there's an advantage to getting the acquisitions and demolitions done quickly so that "if we are able to find those funds to continue the project, then everything is ready to go." She also acknowledged that it will be nerve-wracking for people on Hedge Road, and urged staff to "stay engaged with people to let them know what's going on; that's critical to the overall success of this."

Gladney said the drainage project is "not just important for the health of Garden Hills, but for the health of the city."

Feinen took time to go over the city's historical investments in Garden Hills, such as the SLEEP program and installation of lighting and sidewalks, and pointed out that the council voted to increase the storm-water utility fee so that this project could advance.

"I recognize that it's not going as fast as neighbors would like," Feinen said. "But we still have a council goal to move drainage projects up in priority. I just don't expect it all to happen overnight."

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