Clark Park continues to fight against building of giant houses

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Clark Park Neighborhood in Fall 2018. Residents are fighting for ordinances to regulate the sizes of big homes, which are unaligned with standard houses in the neighborhood. City Council voted against the text amendment regarding zoning ordinances at the Oct. 15 meeting. Photo: Mike McMillen.

In the ongoing battle over the construction of big homes in the Clark Park Neighborhood, there have been some victories for the residents: one is the limits on the size of garages that will reduce the size of the homes. 

Mike McMillen, longtime Clark Park resident, said this is one important change the City Council approved that can help address these concerns. 

“The rules were that you could only build like a 2,300 square foot house on a 50 foot lot … but let’s say you build a house to the biggest can be, 2,300 square feet. You could build an 800 square foot garage, and that didn’t count,” McMillen said. “You could build as big of a garage as you wanted to.”

The Council approved the inclusion of garages in the square foot allocation for Clark Park Neighborhood. Prior to this change, Clark Park had no restriction on the size of garages, contributing to the ongoing resident concerns that new houses are being built too big in comparison to already-existing homes.

A group of residents posted signs around the neighborhood calling for “No Giant Houses”. Photo: WILL

McMillen is part of a steering committee called “No Giant Houses,” a group of residents who “are concerned that any increase allowing large house size will encourage demolition of existing homes that are then (replaced) by … bigger houses that dwarf those that remain,” according to the group’s website.

Bruce Knight, director of the Planning and Development Department, said when Clark Park first developed, it was established to a set of standards that was different from what the city allows under SF1, Single Family Residential Zoning District. 

“That’s really the heart and soul of what the issue is with Clark Park Neighborhood,” Knight said. “Their lots are typically 5,000 square feet so (the new houses) … don’t meet the current standards, but they’re allowed to continue to exist as they are because zoning changed after they were created.”

Eric VanBuskirk, associate planner in the Planning and Development Department, added that Clark Park developed in the early to mid 1900s, a time period different from when other parts of the city were established. As a result, the style of home construction is very different from the typical design today.

“[The difference in design] has a visual impact on these older, established areas that some people don’t like,” VanBuskirk said. “So the Clark Park steering committee, I think, was really committed to (keeping) the design of these homes and their overall size.”

VanBuskirk drafted the text amendment and conducted most of the research on each of the proposals that have gone to Council for reconsideration. He said the text amendment to change the Zoning Ordinance development standards in the SF1 was sent to the Champaign Plan Commission on Oct. 2. 

Although the Plan Commission recommended city council approval, the Council voted against approving the text amendment at its Oct. 15 meeting.

VanBuskirk confirmed that the Council voted against the text amendment 8-1. Therefore it was not approved.

McMillen said the Council members did not like that the amendment was going to be applied to the whole city.

“After endless speechifying, the City Council rejected the whole thing,” McMillen said. “Even though they’ve known the gist of it for, oh, six months and have instructed planning and development to proceed … somehow, between the Plan Commission and the Council meetings, attitudes change.”

Clark Park received further feedback after City Council rejected the Conservation District application, put together by the neighborhood’s steering committee, in January.

The steering committee consists of members Mike Reed, Jim Anderson, William Stewart and McMillen. 

“A Conservation District imposes some limitations on a property owner’s ability to modify the exterior of their structure of build or demolish structures in part or in whole,” states the City of Champaign website. Clark Park residents created this in hopes of moving toward more favorable zoning regulations. 

McMillen said although the city did not approve the application, he was pleased that the Council did direct the Planning and Development Department to rewrite the zoning regulations that had initially upset Clark Park residents, such as the changes made to the garage regulations.

Many of the comments Council members made when they voted against the Conservation District was that the application was too subjective, meaning the changes were too specific to Clark Park. The Council generally supported the changes that were more applicable to the whole city, said Knight. 

“(City Council) wanted zoning standards that would be more quantifiable,” Knight said. “So we went back and developed a package of zoning regulations, which is what we brought to the June 4 City Council study session.”

The zoning change options were established in response to multiple study sessions held throughout the past two years, feedback from an online survey of Clark Park residents and a neighborhood open house in April. 

“The zoning options address a range of development provisions such as front and side setbacks, building height, building bulk and mass, lot dimensions, garages, and other building design elements,” according to a May study session report.

Residents began to notice these changes roughly three to four years ago, when a house in the neighborhood was torn down. When it was rebuilt, it was about 1,000 square feet larger than the city allows, making it noticeable, McMillen said. 

“It was a mistake — it got past the board that’s supposed to regulate it,” McMillen said. “So the house (got) built, and it’s like, whoa, this big old house is bigger than anything that’s around it.” 

McMillen said the houses in Clark Park are not very large; they are generally 1,500 or 2,000 square feet. The issue was that the big house that was rebuilt was the only large one on the whole 10-block neighborhood at the time. 

“All the houses are set back, let’s say, 50 or 60 feet from the sidewalk,” McMillen said. “This house was about 30 feet closer than (any other house), so as you stand on the street and look down … a big house is stuck way up in front.”

McMillen said Clark Park residents have worked to keep up Clark Park Neighborhood, which is why he is advocating not only for himself but also for the group as a whole.

“It’s an old neighborhood. It really is an old neighborhood, and yet, to us, it looked brand new,” McMillen said. “We just want it to stay like that. I think that’s what we’re after.”

This story has been updated to correct the Oct. 15 Champaign City Council vote on the Plan Commission’s proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance Development Standards. The Plan Commission voted to recommend the changes, however, the city council voted against the changes. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the city council unanimously voted to approve the changes.

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