In 1998, the Champaign police estimated that there was a significant drug problem in the Bristol Park neighborhood, with up to transactions every 2 to 3 minutes.
Nine years later, the neighborhood was given a promise by the city of Champaign: it would be redeveloped into a newly improved and revitalized area.
Sixteen years after that, that promise has been fulfilled — but there is still work to do, officials said.
Champaign Neighborhood Services Director Rob Kowalski, who led the planning and redevelopment program for 18 years, has lots of experience with not just Bristol Park, but its main sub-area: Bristol Place.
Bristol Place is one of three areas located in Bristol Park, along with Garwood and the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park. Kowalski said the houses’ values were around $30,000 each, but the average housing value was near $130,000 across Champaign.
The poor housing conditions of the neighborhood prompted the Champaign City Council to focus on providing their community with healthy neighborhoods, and it started with the Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan.
Phase 2 is the next step for Kowalski and his department, which targets a tract of land north of Bristol Place where a multi-family building will be built. This building will provide a 60-unit apartment for low-income seniors over the age of 62, including a community room and a media and fitness center. Development began in Sept. 2023 and construction of the building will begin this year.
Champaign’s web page for the neighborhood plan said it consisted of four parts: an existing conditions analysis, a section on vision, goals and objectives, a land use plan and implementation recommendations. Kowalski said a typical plan like this takes just over a year to put together, but executing it is much more challenging.
Kowalski said he is very satisfied with the work on Bristol Place as well as the progress he’s seen in the city in the last 20 years. However, he said the general gap between income and housing cost is continuing to grow greater and greater.
“I’ve become more and more concerned about the availability of housing in our community — especially affordable housing. Rent is off the charts as well,” Kowalski said. “What can we do to provide more of a housing choice, a broader range of housing, and a broader range of housing prices so our residents can live here and remain in a relatively affordable community?”
A former city employee, who wished to be anonymous, provided individual counseling for many residents during the initial redevelopment. Each issue they saw was different, and the employee said none of them were addressed beforehand due to the poor living conditions in the neighborhood.
“Bristol was considered the housing of last resort. People went there because they had nowhere else to live,” they said. “If you had bad credit, if you had evictions, if you had a criminal background, the housing wasn’t the best, but that was the place to go.”
The Bristol Place development plan consists of three phases, with Phase 1 starting years ago. It involved an acquisition of 23 acres in the area, the relocation of residents, demolition of existing structures and the redevelopment of 90 affordable homes.
“There was an analysis that was done that showed that it would not be advantageous to try and invest more dollars to try and fix up those homes, and instead a path should be chosen to redevelop the area in general,” Kowalski said.
Phase 1 was completed in 2021, transforming what was an area full of old, unrepairable homes into a new neighborhood. To execute the plan, however, the department needed to relocate 60 households that were paying $200 to $300 a month to live there.
Unfortunately for those residents, there weren’t other areas in the city with rent as cheap as it was in Bristol Park.
To provide these residents with chances to move elsewhere, Champaign put resources into financial counseling and assistance. Kowalski said the city provided rental assistance to help subsidize the higher cost of rent after relocation. This assistance included a one-time moving stipend for all residents, while some with lower income and larger families received financial assistance for anywhere between 3.5 and 5 years.
While the department faced some initial resistance from the community, the former city employee said they believe that once they got people on board, their work with the residents was very beneficial.
“From day to day, I saw how people were actually living,” the employee said. “I feel good because I know that those people moved into a better situation than what they were in.”
These former Bristol residents had the first opportunity to come back and live in one of the new affordable housing units once Phase 1 finished in 2021. Six families moved back there initially, but there weren’t many others that did, Kowalski said.
“The process of redeveloping takes so long,” Kowalski said. “People move on.”