Garden Hills neighborhood improvements in full swing

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Garden Hills looking east on Paula Drive from Mattis Avenue on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. Photo by Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

Neighborhood input “shaped” the design of the ongoing Garden Hills improvement project, of which the latest phase costs an estimated $35 million to install a new park and detention basin alongside long-needed amenities in the area.

During the 2015-16 fiscal year, a Champaign drainage study found flooding issues due to undersized sewer pipes and the absence of an emergency overland flow path. These findings led to the proposal of the Garden Hills Drainage Improvements Project, which has five phases.

The project had already begun earlier this year, with workers installing streetlights that will be powered by an underground conduit. Now, an ongoing $35 million project focused on a brand-new park and a detention basin promises improvements for the people in the neighborhood.


Champaign Park District Director of Planning Andrew Weiss said the estimated $35 million funding came primarily from the city, with some from Champaign County. An Oct. 10 press release from the city said $5 million is from the city of Champaign’s American Rescue Plan Act funds awarded by the federal government.

“This phase of the project will cost approximately $35 million and will be funded with $5 million of the City of Champaign’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, $2 million of ARPA funds from Champaign County, and the sale of City bonds,” the press release said.

Garden Hills residents have said they needed community projects to help make the area safer and more sustainable for residents for decades. The streetlighting project, which is expected to be completed by fall 2024, was just one piece of the puzzle.

Lacey Rains, senior planner with the Champaign Planning and Development Department, explained how the need for a more permanent park became a further necessity after analyzing demographic data.

“A significant percentage of this neighborhood was under 18, about 29.7%,” Rains said. “This is well over the city comparable which is about 17.7%. So, [we] thought, ‘we kind of have to think about this project maybe a little bit differently.’” 

The Hedge Park project broke ground in mid-October after consulting with residents, officially beginning the second phase of the project. 

This phase of the project includes a basin to control stormwater and prevent floods, a 1.5-mile walking path, pedestrian street lighting and seating areas for residents.

The detention basin will circle the brand-new Hedge Park, which will replace the Hedge POP! Park, a temporary park that was created to promote safety and activity in the community. 

“The Hedge POP! Park was the city’s vehicle to get neighborhood input,” Park District Director Weiss said. “All of the outreach events compiled a lot of data and an assessment on what the people want.” 

The input was acquired by Rains and other people in the Planning and Development Department. Rains and her colleagues spent “hundreds of hours each” getting input from residents of the area.

“We would often have a team of people out there,” Rains said. “It would be myself and several colleagues, we encouraged people from other departments to come out and get involved, organizing events for residents.”

The permanent Hedge Park is designed to have a vast selection of activities and equipment for families to enjoy. Champaign’s website said the park “is expected to include a basketball court, reading circle, turf area, playground equipment, a Sutu wall, splash play area, exercise stations and a plaza gathering space.” 

The work during this phase will also completely reconstruct Hedge Road between Mattis Avenue and Hedge Court. 

The design of the park was influenced by residents of the neighborhood, a project update web page said.

“It was important to be in person for this,” Rains said. “Taking the time to really be in the neighborhood you’re working in is critical. There are a lot of things that you observe and understand better when you see it for yourself.” 

At the beginning of this process,  they held a neighborhood meeting about how the ARPA funding should be spent, Rains said. 

“People were frustrated around the things happening in the community and the neighborhood,” Rains said. “They were sharing their concerns that they felt weren’t being addressed.”

The project is expected to be completed by late 2025 or early 2026. The project’s official completion will also start the initial 15-year period for Champaign Park District’s operation and maintenance of the property, but the possibility of extending that period exists.

Weiss explained how the city and park district partnered up and said it’s not uncommon for the two to partner. 

“We work closely together on a lot of initiatives, things like Bristol Park,” Weiss said. “These partnerships are ones we have had for years now, and so when the city makes an initiative for stormwater runoff mitigation, it’s not just to make a hole in the ground.”

Chelsea Norton, the park district’s director of marketing and development, said the team’s expertise benefits both parties.     

“They want to make something like a stormwater detention into an amenity for the area,” Weiss said. “We have our expertise in parks and recreation, so we bring it into this project as well.”

Norton said city staff showed up at the temporary park to get community feedback.      

“The city had staff with clipboards, asking questions and getting feedback from the neighborhood,” Norton said. “That way, people who weren’t involved in the association could still supply feedback. City planners volunteered a lot of their time.”

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