Residents of In-Town, a part of Champaign that prides itself on its vibrant diversity, rallied together against possible zoning developments last fall.
After nearly two years of meetings and advocacy, the residents, specifically the members of both the Old Town and Washington St. Neighborhood Associations, successfully negotiated a set of conditions with the City Council that new developers must abide by when building in the In-Town District of Champaign.
In the last several years, Champaign real estate has boomed as the college town is becoming a hub for local restaurants, shops and entertainment. As the popularity of the city grows, so does its housing, with realtors from all over the U.S. flocking to Champaign to build large apartment complexes.
In-Town’s residential feel combined with its proximity to the University make it an ideal spot for developers, said Rob Kowalski, assistant planning and developing director of Champaign.
Residents in the In-Town district feared new apartment complexes might take away what makes Champaign unique.
“(In-Town) is one of the few places that has such diversity of types of people,” said Brenda Koenig, resident of Old Town and member of the Washington St. Neighborhood Association. “You have people with different political beliefs, people of different religions, people with different racial backgrounds, people who are renters, people who are homeowners.”
This diversity is said to be one of the key characteristics of the In-Town district.
“It’s a slice of America,” Koenig said.
Prior to the proposed zoning changes, In-Town had both single family and multi-family homes. The residents’ concern, however, was that the new apartment buildings would not fit in aesthetically or in size with the current buildings.
“The idea was more we want affordable housing. We want a variety of different types of housing, but let’s think about keeping what makes Champaign-Urbana kind of a unique place to live,” Koenig said. “We don’t want to strip the character of our town so we look like nothing.”
The original zoning rules did not have restrictions on how big a building could be or on the design. The residents did not want large buildings looming over their houses or being made with cheap materials as that draws away from the historical feel of the In-Town area.
“There was a concern that the apartment buildings being built were quite large and some of the older homes were being knocked down, demolished,” Koenig said.
The zoning changes were not easily agreed upon. Residents and Kowalski met several times over the course of two years before official changes were made. Meanwhile, the City Council voted to put a moratorium on developing in the In-Town district until the matter was settled.
“It’s very gratifying to live in a place where if the citizens speak up, (the city) will listen,” said Beatrice Pavia, In-Town resident since 1987 who resided on the committee to discuss these changes.
There was a lot of pressure to get the zoning changes finalized, Kowalski said.
Kowalski’s strategy was to hold focus groups with the residents to get a thorough understanding of their concerns. He had to act as a middle man between them and the developers.
“After you go to two or three neighborhood meetings and there’s a 100 people there and they’re all upset and you meet for three hours and listen to a lot of complaints, you realize that a more productive way of getting some changes proposed is to get a smaller group of residents that can help dig into this a little more,” he said.
By September 2018, new zoning changes were passed that restricts the size of the building and also requires the developers to uphold “design standards.”
“I feel that there was a lot of compromise and that a lot of good things came out,” Pavia said. “You have to be able to provide housing for the different types of people in the community”
Design standards refer the aesthetics of the building. According to the City of Champaign Code Revision Sheet for In-Town Zoning, new buildings must have a front-facing door and must use materials that fit in with the neighborhood. The exact sizes the buildings can be depends on their exact location
“You don’t want to see the livability of the neighborhood, the diversity of the neighborhood, the affordability of the neighborhood completely ruined because of developers,” Koenig said.
Although the design standards are a more subjective requirement, their purpose is to keep the look of the neighborhood.
“The size is controlled and then the design will be such that is looks nicer, higher quality and fits in better with the neighborhood, Kowalski said.
Although finally in agreement, Kowalski said the discussion process with the residents and developers was long and could become tiresome.
“The hardest part is balancing staying neutral yet trying to put forth my technical expertise as well as my opinion as city planner,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re here to serve the residents and provide for the city they want. Part of my job is to answer that question: What kind of community do we want and what do we need to do to get it? It’s easier said than done.”
Koenig said overall the residents felt listened to in regards to the zoning changes, but also felt like the conversation could have gone differently.
“We followed a political advocacy path to try and get close to what we wanted to get done done,” she said. “I think had the neighborhood groups been the people who set the agenda, we would’ve come to a very different end.”
Construction for the first approved development since the zoning changes has begun and Kowalski said they are waiting for the result in fall 2019 to see if the zoning rules need to be tweaked.
“Sometimes, you’re doing your job best if you make nobody happy,” he said. “It’s is a joke we have.”