The Garden Hills neighborhood faces a myriad of problems as the Champaign City Council announced plans in October to demolish 18 more properties as part of the city’s Garden Hills Drainage Improvements Project.
The demolitions are the first step in the city’s five-step, $44 million drainage and street improvement project for Garden Hills that has no firm timetable, with the second step not estimated to begin until 2030.
The city’s multi-decade improvement plan for Garden Hills has increased the community residents’ trepidation as they see general deterioration and an abundance of issues piling up while the city’s improvement efforts appear to have slowed.
“We’re just not a priority, let’s put it that way,” Amy Revilla said.
A 32-year resident of Garden Hills and a member of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, Revilla feels the timetables for improvements across the board are moving far too slow.
“They came to us and introduced it and obviously we were very excited about it, because flooding is really horrendous in some areas,” Revilla said. “On the south side (of Garden Hills) it’s horrible. We’ve had clean ups in the rain where we’ve ended up having to go push people out of the floods, it’s just terrible. And, to think that you could wait 20-30 years for something like this is ridiculous.”
Homeowners in Garden Hills are also frustrated with dilapidated sidewalks and poorly lit major roadways.
Chad Smith, the president of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said the city is not doing enough to solve major issues in Garden Hills
“I believe that if the city was more proactive, instead of reactive like they are, we would have less need for attention out here because we would have adequate lighting (and) sidewalks,” Smith said. “And then if they actually did their part to enforce or work with this neighborhood to clean up some of the bad rental properties and bad property owners period, then we’d be in better shape.”
Smith said greater attention from the city council for Garden Hills is reasonable considering it has over 1,100 homes that each contribute $1500-$1700 per year in taxes to the city’s funds.
Smith attributed the levels of crime, and a specific incident in which a Garden Hills resident recently passed away from a car accident while crossing the street, to the poorly conditioned streets and lights.
Furthermore, he said the city needs to be more flexible and adjust its plans to accommodate the more pressing needs of Garden Hills rather than stick to the concrete blueprint it has in place now.
“The drainage is an issue, it definitely is, but I do believe that the city could do more to, at minimum, put more lighting out here,” Smith said. “They can put lights out here. I understand the fact that they want to do this in an order of tearing up the streets and doing the drainage, then doing the sidewalks and lights so they don’t have to tear up any sidewalks that they put down or mess up any lighting they put in.”
Smith said he was a general contractor and does that kind of work all the time.
“I love it when a job goes from A to B to C to D, but there’s lots of times where something happens and we have to skip over a step and then work our way back around it,” he said. “It makes it a little bit difficult, but in the long run, it’s still achieving the goal, and they could put street lights out here without a problem.”
A major issue is funds for the projects.
“If there was a way to do some of that (improving lights and sidewalk), I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but right now, I don’t think we’re gonna add on a multimillion dollar project without figuring out where we are with our finances,” Champaign City Council District 3 representative Angie Brix said.
She added, “As of right now, we still have $5 million to cut from the budget because of COVID, so it’s not that (street lights and sidewalks are) not a priority, it is ‘where are we going to get the funding to do that?’ And part of it is with the overall project, we have to pay back the stormwater project because we’re doing that in bonds, so you have to pay back that piece to then have the funds to do another massive project.”
Smith and Revilla said fixing streetlights and sidewalks will have extended positive benefits in Garden Hills, specifically crime deterrence and safety when walking in the neighborhood. They feel that helping to mitigate these two issues takes precedence over storm drainage, and that improvement can be achieved while still keeping the storm drainage project alive in the future.
Brix, who represents certain areas of Garden Hills within her district, did say that once COVID’s effects on budgets have been corrected there could be progress.
“I wanna say, I understand they are frustrated, and I know those are the issues, I’ve heard it from the minute that I got on the council,” Brix said. “It is a priority, we’re trying to move on it as fast as we can, and yet, we have to make sure we’re taking care of things city-wide as well. It’s not that it’s not a priority, it’s just we’ve got to have the funding to do the projects and if we can, move it up, then we certainly will do that.”