Zoning debate leaves Clark Park homes at risk

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Amy Thoren's front yard of her home February 21 in the Clark Park neighborhood. Thoren's home experiences basement flooding, requiring five water pumps to counteract. Photo by Dylan Tiger.

From all corners of her home’s basement in Clark Park, Amy Thoren combats flooding with four active water pumps.

If rainfall or drainage issues become more prevalent, Thoren may have to rely on her fifth pump in the years to come.

“It’s like the Mississippi in here,” Thoren said, describing her basement’s condition during heavy rainfall. “The whole house shakes from the pumps, and you can hear the water flowing like a waterfall.”

In January 2018, the city delayed the zoning vote on increasing floor-area ratio, FAR, for areas like Clark Park.

It currently sits at .35, but was proposed to rise to .50, meaning more of a house’s lot can be covered with parts of the home.

If FAR increases, Thoren fears more water can flow from impervious surfaces like driveways and rooftops, which causes more water to run down the streets and indirectly into her home’s basement.

Associate City Planner Ben LeRoy says the city is moving forward with engaging the neighborhood, but no concrete plans have been made.

Exceptions to direct zoning changes would be buildings in a conservation district or historic preservation district, which follow different standards before changes can be made.

Clark Park’s conservation district application contained 82 pages of signatures, narratives and amendments. The application was the result of at least 2,000 hours of work put in by residents measuring setbacks, green space and more. The Historic Preservation Commission also formally nominated the district based on findings in the application, but the Plan Commission did not recommend it.

It was denied earlier this year.

“Ultimately, approval lies with City Council,” LeRoy said.

The staff report from the council meeting this year indicated that owners in the neighborhood were tallied 54-54 in approval and opposition to the proposed district. Thoren, among other residents, were shocked at the allegedly misleading number.

“We received an email before the meeting that the tally was over 100 approvals and less than 60 opposed,” Thoren said.

She said a main point of debate at the meeting was that the community appeared to be divided over the issue.

“It was the most absurd city council meeting I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Nobody acknowledged the actual numbers.”

LeRoy said staff reports are finished in the week before meetings, so the tally was not updated unless the council asks for a staff presentation.

Thoren’s house in Champaign sits on a four-way intersection of streets with downward inclines, making the area one of the lowest-lying places to live in the area. In her yard, Thoren is working on planting native plants with deeper root systems to try and mitigate her flooding problems.

Traci Thomas, another resident in the neighborhood, gave insight into how the zoning debate arose.

“A developer came in and built a house that didn’t comply with code,” she said. “It somehow got approved by the city.”

Thomas claims developers, including Mike Martin Builders, have been purchasing houses and tearing them down in order to build larger properties.

Calls to Mike Martin Builders were not returned.

“Personally, this type of development is taking away affordable housing stock and a community-oriented neighborhood,” Thomas said.

Clark Park resident Mike Reed worked with the neighborhood group working on the conservation district application. He said their goal was to “prioritize the interests of the current residents rather than allow market forces to control the outcome.”

However, Reed received word from Planning & Development Director Bruce Knight that marked a change to community organizers’ strategies.

“While I appreciate your viewpoint on this I can only say that we will continue to move this forward consistent with our direction from City Council,” Knight said in an email.

“There have been many ups and downs during the past year and a half,” Reed said. “but today’s events were surely one of our greatest disappointments.”

Zoning changes that allow for larger houses in the neighborhood have some residents citing concerns such as property tax increases, affordable housing and historical aesthetic of the neighborhood.

As one of many community organizers for Clark Park, Thomas likes the neighborhood because it’s nice for families because things are in walking distance, not to mention the park itself. Because of its family nature, Thomas thinks younger families may be turned away over time as houses get bigger under proposed zoning changes.

“Over time, first time house owners can’t afford larger ones,” Thomas said. “What’s the actual value of my house if half-million dollar houses are being built all around?”

Some residents who own more lots in Clark Park have plans for future development, including splitting one larger historic lot into smaller ones and building on it.

“City Council has to vote on it,” Thoren said. “They want to push out the setbacks to the legal limit.”

After the conservation district failed to pass the vote, some residents are continuing to work on fighting further development. The first plan involves the aforementioned lot plans, and the second is establishing zoning exceptions for the neighborhood that don’t fall under the conservation umbrella.

According to Reed, community organizers will be meeting to discuss their next plans after recent meetings with Knight.

“Inappropriate development can erase a neighborhood little by little,” Reed said. For the meeting, Reed said the goal is to marshall the forces and reorganize after the conservation district bid was denied.

Knight sent out postcards indicating an April 4 neighborhood workshop at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ to develop alternative proposals.

For Thoren, she’s left with the fear of future drainage problems as the rainy season closes out in April.

“I’m horrified at any increase in FAR,” she said. “I want to make sure the earth is like a sponge, not a bathtub.”

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Dan Proctor

    Please ask an expert, not a local resident about how drainage is a function of well placed drainage tiles on a property and sufficient storm sewer infrastructure in a neighborhood. Champaign needs increasing revenues from rising real estate values to pay for infrastructure improvements…..duh. Note North Prospect with all the concrete doesn’t have a drainage problem. The only thing absurd about the council meeting was the ownership that these residents think they have of every lot in their own arbitrarily drawn up boundaries. Ms. Thoren’s comments represent the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ as her group impose their group think. I purchased the single plat at Clark Park that is a triple lot in size 3 years ago mentioned in your article as “historic” (its not). We demolished the dilapidated house quickly so the lot has now sat completely vacant free of any concrete or foundation for over 30 months. From Ms. Thoren’s analysis, that should have “sponged” the entire drainage problem being located at the epicenter of Clark Park. If my roof was leaking, I wouldn’t complain about my neighbor who has a new roof — I’d fix my own roof. The owner of that lot, an Octogenarian didn’t complain about the purchase price I paid for her home (well over $300k). Try framing Mr. Reed’s comment “prioritize the interests of the current residents rather than allow market forces to control the outcome” around keeping certain races, ethnicities or class of people out of a neighborhood. Note that his house is anything but small and violates the setbacks according to their preferred parameters. These homes are all aging and some well beyond a reasonable remodel budget for affordable housing, first time home buyers or whatever. Their claims of expensive homes making their homes worth “too much” is just laughable. This is bigotry to maintain a certain “class” of people in their neighborhood. The organizers of NoGiantHouses need to pool their resources and buy up the neighborhood rather than brow beat our city council into doing something they well know is NOT in the best interest of the long term viability of the Clark Park neighborhood. Houses don’t make a neighborhood, people do. Speaking as a resident of Champaign for over 30 years, I don’t feel entitled to any property in Champaign any more than any other purchaser with the cash. I’ve watched the value of my property pushed down by at least 20% from this misrepresented attack on families wanting to redevelop an aging neighborhood in a prime central location. My wife and I (empty nesters) bought the lot to build a reasonable home with all the amenities, drainage and safety provisions that modern construction (3500 sq. ft on that triple lot) could provide. These folks have chased us out, we have now tried to give them what they want. Three small homes on the 3 small lots and they still aren’t happy with getting EXACTLY what they want. Absurd?? You better believe it.

  2. Astrid Berkson

    Champaign is already remiss if anyone needs 4 sump pumps the control the water in their basement. Champaign should clear up that problem before it considers further development

  3. Tom Napier

    ” … drainage is a function of well placed drainage … ” Drainage is also a function of capacity. Allow more water to pour into the system from impermeable surfaces and you’ll exceed its capacity. Think of it as pouring 10 gallons of … water … into a 5 gallon bucket.

    ” … ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ … ” I learned in grade school civics class that abiding by the majority was fundamental to democracy.

    ” … making their homes worth ‘too much … ” What happens to when a perfectly good modestly sized home becomes overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by very large houses squeezing up to within 4 ft. 9 in. of its property line. I suspect its value, and tax revenue therein, will plummet.

    ” … (3500 sq. ft on that triple lot) … ” This is over double the average floor area of homes in the Clark Park Neighborhood. Families have raised two, three, four or more children, in 1,500 sq. ft. homes, on single lots (6,600 sq. ft.), for quite some time. That’s the great thing about the neighborhood — you have a beautiful park right at hand and someone else mows the grass!

    “Three small homes on the 3 small lots and they still aren’t happy with getting EXACTLY what they want.” As I understand it the issue isn’t the floor area of the houses, it’s the reduced setback on Daniel St, at the west leg of McKinley St., at the northwest corner of the park. The concern is the reduced field of vision for drivers traveling eastbound on Daniel when approaching the park and children.

  4. Tom Napier

    ” … around keeping certain races, ethnicities (sic) or class of people out of a neighborhood.” Think. What price range of homes is likely to offer more opportunity to “certain races, ethnicities (sic) or class of people” — existing homes priced in the lower $200,000’s, or oversized new houses priced at $ 700,000 – $800,000 or more?