On August 30, the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association Facebook page called to arms residents of the neighborhood:
“We can all safely say that our infrastructure is vital to keeping our children safe. When it is neglected then our children are in harm’s way daily!!”
That wasn’t the first, or second time or even the third time, that Garden Hills residents have voiced their concerns of infrastructure and safety. In fact, it’s been going on for years. Garden Hills is one of the most struggling neighborhoods in the City of Champaign, with frequent flooding issues, lack of street lighting and, recently, an increase in crime rates.
In June, the city was awarded $25 million through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), a COVID-19 economic relief plan disbursing emergency funds. Half of the funds have already been given to the city, while the other half will be received next year. Kay Nees, finance director of the city, said the ARP was like a “key missing piece” in order to get to work on Garden Hills.
When Garden Hills was initially built, it was outside city jurisdiction, which had a major impact on the regulations the neighborhood was under.
“You will see older neighborhoods that have infrastructure that Garden Hills doesn’t, and it just happens to do with the jurisdiction that they were under at the time that they were built,” Tina Ansong, associate planner of the city’s planning and development department, said.
The two efforts, a drainage project to target flooding, and a lighting project to make the streets safer, have their own timeline, budget and design. The first phase of the drainage project has already been completed: creating greenspace to install detention basins. The city worked with residents to demolish properties that were frequently getting flooded to make room for detention basins.
“American Rescue Plan Act funding will really be a game changer for the timeline of this project,” Lacey Rains, senior planner in the city’s Planning and Development Department said. “We conducted extensive outreach into the community this summer in August to try and find out what the main concerns are for the community, and [water, sewer and storm sewer infrastructure] was one of the top vote getters.”
Phase two of the project involves installing the improvements for the drainage, the detention basin and large pipes beneath the streets, including Hedge Road. Main streets of the neighborhood will be reconstructed with underground connectors to the basin, in addition to reconstruction of sidewalks, curbs and gutters. The detention basin design includes park-like amenities, like benches and walk paths.
According to Nees, this phase of the project costs around $22.8 million. This phase is expected to be completed by December of 2023.
“For infrastructure projects of this size, the design work typically takes about at least two years,” Nees said. “We’re trying to expedite that where we can because we know the needs within Garden Hills.”
Phase three, the final step in stopping flooding in Garden Hills, works towards installing large storm sewers lines to transport pond water and additional rainwater and steer it into the basin. This phase is projected at about $17 million. Completion of this phase is expected by December 2028.
In the 80s and 90s, regulations from Illinois became stronger to start to mitigate some of the stormwater, instead of letting it “run to the neighbor’s property,” according to Rains.
Though the ARP pushes the speed of this project, which contributes $5 million, most of the funds come from the stormwater detention fund, summed by the residents’ stormwater utility fee. Sales and property taxes also flow into the stormwater detention fund.
“The stormwater utility fee was really the opportunity to, before the city, with pressure from residents, finally be able to get infrastructure that needed to be built, everybody knew needed to be built, retrofitted into the neighborhoods because it created a revenue source to do that work,” Senior Planner Rains said. “So prior to that, the city was relying on your traditional capital improvements planning, trying to seek federal and state grant dollars.”
For Garden Hills, lighting has long been a problem. Residents have voiced concerns of lack of street lights that may play a role in increased crime and fear for their children’s safety while they walk the streets alone.
Enter the Garden Hills street lighting project. Designed to install pole street lights and pedestrian LEDs at all street intersections and mid-block locations, this project would provide a total of 119 street lights. Construction could start in the summer of 2023, as the project is currently out for bid for an engineering company.
“The lighting is starting much quicker because it doesn’t require as lengthy of a design period,” Nees said.
The streetlighting project is projected to cost $6 to $8 million.
Additionally, the City’s Safety Lighting Energy Efficiency Program, otherwise known as SLEEP, will provide Garden Hills residents with the installation of any or all of the following: yard light poles, exterior entry point light and video doorbells.
“If you live in Garden Hills, and you want this, there will be a technician who will work for the city, who will essentially be coordinating that effort for this program to get folks signed up. And to make sure that it gets installed,” Rains said.
Rains said the city does not have any access to the Ring (front-door camera and doorbell) footage or account. The Ring material is personal property of the house residents, if they decide to install the security camera.
These combined projects hope to relieve some long-standing problems of Garden Hills, perhaps diminish crime rates.
“I think it’s important to recognize (when) talking about crime in general that it’s two faceted,” Associate Planner Ansong said. “There’s been studies that show that there is some reduction in crime when lighting is improved, but there’s also a social aspect that plays into climate violence as well.”
Back in August, the city board conducted a public input survey, where residents of Champaign were able to voice where they think ARP funds should go. The most prominent choice was community violence intervention programs, with a majority of 68.8% of participants voting for them.
Ansong and Rains are working on a strategic neighborhood action plan to complement the infrastructure improvements.
“That’s where the neighborhood plan gives us the opportunity to have these larger conversations about what more can be done to use the infrastructure as a catalyst for change, and then to support that change,” Rains said.