URBANA — When Joe and Phyllis Williams do their dishes at their 100-year-old bungalow, their view includes a two-story apartment complex with a large tree beside it.
It's the tallest thing in sight.
But within two years from now, when the Williamses peer out from their small kitchen window, that tree could be replaced by a five-storey student housing development slated for an odd-shaped lot on University and Lincoln avenues. Urbana council members will take up the issue of rezoning the lots tonight, the first time the "Gather" development will go before the body.
"We're the biggest historic district in Urbana, and we're just one block, so we're like a veneer anyway," Phyllis Williams said of the West Main Historic District, which lies just a block away from the proposed development.
"And then they want to shove all of this in? It's tremendous. We'll be just so endangered at that point. It doesn't take much to figure we'll be like an island soon."
The Urbana project, which Texas-based Rael Development Corp. hopes to break ground on in the second quarter of this year, will include 200 apartments, 16 townhomes and 50 extended-stay hotel rooms, as well as 15,000 square feet of lobby, small-scale retail and outdoor public areas.
Plan Commission members have already voted to recommend that council members adopt new zoning for the development and approve a special use permit that would allow the developer to build as tall as he'd like, though a 65-foot cap was suggested.
Already, the plan has faced opposition from some residents of the West Main Historic District, who probed Plan Commission members last week on the specifics of the development and wondered how Gather would fit within the century-old sewer system, small brick streets nearby and general environment.
Height is just one issue for the Williamses. Another: the future of Busey Ave.
"Busey is envisioned as a big way to get in and out of the development," Phyllis Williams said. "And yet Busey is so underdeveloped in that area. There's no sidewalk, no rain gutters, no nothing. And it's basically one lane because of the church parking and street parking before you get to Main Street. There's all this infrastructure that would need to be upgraded."
And there are the 16 three-story townhomes, which would be built south of Clark Street, across from the larger five-story building. The parking lot for those townhomes will abut the Williamses' backyard.
"It's going to be strange," Joe Williams said. "It's going to destroy our sense of wellbeing. It'll be two years of banging around."
Two doors down, Randy Kangas and Suzanne Bissonnette share similar concerns. They live in the oldest of the historic district houses, an Italianate built in 1878 and once owned by five-term mayor and bank cofounder Matthew E. Busey.
They said the development won't conform to the neighborhood — adding more traffic and density — and will change the residential feel of the area.
"You're bringing in literally hundreds of people into the neighborhood, but are you inviting them to be members of the community?" Bissonnette said. "These are meant for our transient populations. This development isn't aimed at building permanent residents of Urbana. They're aimed at students, who come and go."
For Kangas, it's the age and history of the neighborhood that's so important to preserve.
"You're trying to build a 21st century development on 19th century infrastructure," he said. "We fear this will make it permanently less desirable, and we worry too about our property values.
"This house is over a hundred years old. But I ask, is that building going to be there in 150 years? Will my house be here in 10?"