Residents: New apartments threaten historic Washington Street neighborhood

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Sarah O'Beirne

The 500-800 W. Washington neighborhood is made up of historic homes dating back to the late 1800s. Oct. 25, 2019.

Residents of Washington Street neighborhood association are worried as their neighborhood’s historic character is threatened by new apartment complexes. 

A brand-new apartment on the 300 block of W. Washington St. was built in 2019 right where a vintage Victorian home once stood and residents say it doesn’t match the neighborhood.

Washington Street neighborhood, consisting of the 500-800 blocks, is located off Prospect Ave. 

It’s one of Champaign’s first neighborhoods, with homes in the area dating back to the 1800s. Though many homes have been converted into multi-family housing over the years, the exterior still reflects the historical character.

According to the Champaign Planning and Development Department, the new apartment complex at 309 W. Washington is classified as an IT-MR1 which allows for smaller scaled multi-family residential developments. 

A brand new apartment complex, managed by JSJ Property Management, was built at 309 W. Washington. Oct. 25, 2019.

Though the new complex fits zoning regulations, City Council District 4 Representative Greg Stock does feel the apartment complex is out of place. He understands, however, that general zoning regulations do not restrict developers.

“It’s an 18-unit building which doesn’t really fit with anything around it,” Stock said. “The reality is the current zoning regulations for that parcel is what’s allowed.”

Most of the historic Washington neighborhood is zoned as an In-town Single Family Residential District (IT-SF1), which promotes the preservation of houses. Under this regulation, existing homes may be converted up to two units, and new structures must be compatible with the size, scale and design of existing homes.

“That’s where it gets tricky. You make these zoning regulations that are one size fits all for the city, but then you have those areas where that’s not the greatest,” Stock said. “You want to keep it simple so you don’t have a rule for each neighborhood and have that one size fits all, knowing that all neighborhoods are not the same.”

Resident Brenda Koenig has lived on the 600 block of Washington Street for over 10 years and said neighbors aren’t against new development, but they’re concerned about how it could change the makeup of their neighborhood. 

“It’s not that we don’t want development this area, we want the kind of development that would make people proud to walk down and say yes this is where I come from,” Koenig said. “The neighborhood is really worried about losing that history, losing that mojo that you get when you walk down a block that makes you say ‘I’m proud to be from Champaign-Urbana. This gives me a sense of identity, a sense of place.’ That’s what we’re worried about losing.”

When established, the neighborhood was home to doctors, university professors, downtown workers and railroad workers, all living in close proximity. The local elementary school, once called Gregory School, was the first integrated school in the city back in 1898. 

 “You see pictures at Gregory School in the 1920s and 1930s and it’s a bunch of African Americans and white kids all in the same class. That was pretty unique for this downstate area,” Koenig said.

The neighborhood character has continued to this day, as some of the historic mansions were converted into multi-unit apartments. The mix of long-term homeowners and renters maintain the mix of diversity and comradery the neighborhood was created on. 

“It’s one of those neighborhoods where you’re walking your dog and you don’t make it to the end of the block because you’re chatting,” Koenig said.

But Washington neighborhood isn’t the only neighborhood who’ve had complaints of threatening zoning changes. In July 2019, the city council voted 5-4 to approve the rezoning of 609 S. State St. and 611 S. State St.

According to city documents, the two properties were originally zoned as IT-SF1, the same classification as Washington Street. They were approved for rezoning as mixed residential units, where an apartment building could be built.

The Champaign Historic Preservation Commission, run by Chairman Anthony Bamert identifies properties, structures, and areas that are historically significant. The commission advises the planning commission with the designation of landmarks, conservation, and historic districts.

“There’s always been a pro-development slant in everything that the city of Champaign does. We’ve had a lot of historic structures that have been lost over the years,” Bamert said. “Politically, historical preservation has never been a priority for the city of Champaign.”

Bamert advised the Washington Street neighborhood to apply for a conservation district, which would specify that the area contains a concentration of historically significant structures and place limits on the property owner’s ability to modify the exterior of their structure, or to build or demolish structures. 

This was attempted in the Clark neighborhood but failed 6-3 in the Champaign City Council in Jan. 2019. Bamert said if Washington Street Neighborhood wanted to designate the neighborhood, they should start small, with just one block.

“We need to get a victory in the move towards historic preservation,” Bamert said.

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