For years, Garden Hills residents, property owners and advocates have been unsuccessfully pleading with the city of Champaign for improved living conditions, more city funding and reduced crime such as gun violence.
While plans are underway for some improvements, some said it should have come sooner.
“We have a partial sidewalk on our street, no street lighting and every time it rains you can hardly get out of your driveway or cross the street. We have kids that have to be at bus stops for school by six in the morning and it is still dark out while they are walking in the street because there is no sidewalk,” said a Garden Hills resident who requested anonymity to avoid identification by the city council.
The resident noted that she has, “sat in on city meetings and complained a million times and I get the same thing…where they come to a conclusion that it will be five to 10 years, or they don’t have money yet.”
According to the city and its 10-year drainage plan, the funding for improvements, such as streetlights and sidewalks, will not be available until the construction for the drainage project is finished, which is not scheduled to complete before 2030.
Bruce Knight, the Champaign Planning and Development Director, explained in an article for the News Gazette that, “Some of the projects are scheduled for later than we might like, but they’re for when funds are available.”
This resident’s claims and accusations regarding the city’s actions toward Garden Hills are not without basis. Former city council member, Clarissa Nickerson-Fourman, also spoke candidly about how the city council and Mayor handle issues relating to Garden Hills.
“What I learned when I was on the city council is that they make priorities where they want them to be. So, if they wanted to put drains, streetlights and sidewalks in Garden Hills piece by piece until they begin construction for the drainage plan, they could do it,” Fourman said in a phone interview.
“I believe and I have always believed that the administration is not putting the funding there, not because it doesn’t exist, but because they don’t want to,” Fourman said. “I know it’s expensive, but I have seen the way the numbers work and how they do things, so I know they just don’t want to do it.”
These are not the only funding issues the people of Garden Hills have been experiencing. The city also introduced the Garden Hills SLEEP (Safety, Lighting, Energy and Efficiency Program) two years ago. In this program, residents can qualify for up to almost $5,000 in financial compensation if they meet several different eligibility requirements.
However, Garden Hills property owner Marcos Asse has attempted to access this money for himself and his homeowners and has found that it “is incredibly difficult” to get clarity on how to get the money and who to contact.
“I’ve spoken to a sheriff, someone on the city commission and somebody on the city council and got nowhere,” Asse said in a phone interview.
“If I own 40 homes in Garden Hills that qualify and my homeowners and I haven’t received a penny of it, then where is the money and where is it going? There is no one in Garden Hills that I know who has been able to access that money,” Asse added.
His frustration went beyond simply accessing this money, but extended to the effectiveness of the program as well. Asse agrees with the unnamed resident and Fourman that the neighborhood is more in need of physical repairs.
“The other issue with this program is that it focuses on all of the wrong things. Residents don’t need money for window locks or new doorbells right now, they need streetlights, dumpsters for their garbage and speed bumps. I drive through the area and there is always garbage piled up outside houses and on the street,” Asse said.
Moreover, Fourman noted that if there is enough money to give almost $5,000 to countless qualifying homes, the city can afford to install streetlights to reduce the crime in the neighborhood.
“I know for a fact that Ameren [an outfit that provides interior and exterior LED lighting] will charge 13 dollars a month to put in LED streetlights, which could light up the main areas,” she said. “And installing a few cameras would certainly prevent some people from coming to Garden Hills and committing crimes.”
Crime in Garden Hills has been an additional issue in the neighborhood on top of the poor living conditions. Several years ago, 14.6% of all weapon-related crimes in Champaign happened in the Garden Hills area. According to Fourman, the crime epidemic and physical condition of the neighborhood go hand-in-hand.
“Someone is obviously more likely to commit a crime or shoot someone when they can’t be seen. In a well-lit area and potentially with cameras, people will be less likely to commit crimes in Garden Hills – it’s common sense,” Fourman said.
The consistent gun violence in Garden Hills has taken a toll on residents and caused some to fear leaving their homes.
“We are scared to just sit outside our homes because you don’t know if somebody is going to drive by and start shooting or not,” the unnamed resident said. “We know they push things to the side because of the reputation of this neighborhood. If it was somewhere else, it would be done already.”
Asse and Fourman both concurred with this resident that if these issues showed up in a different neighborhood they would have been dealt with immediately.
“If this were Cherry Hills [an affluent Champaign neighborhood] instead of Garden Hills, those streetlights would have been put in already,” Asse said.
Fourman added that if the city and administration don’t feel as though they can gain anything from the neighborhood, then they will put their funds and attention elsewhere.
“The administration, the council and the mayor see value where they want and they don’t see that in Garden Hills, so the struggling people and underfunded conditions are left to suffer,” she said.