CHAMPAIGN — The city of Champaign could potentially commit about half its $25.2 million in funding from the most recent federal coronavirus relief act to substantially speed up work to help correct lighting and flooding issues in the Garden Hills neighborhood.
The city council will meet in a study session this evening to discuss Garden Hills projects, including the use of $5 million of the city’s federal coronavirus relief funds to help pay for drainage projects and another $6 million to $8 million for lighting programs.
Finance Director Kay Nees said final guidelines for use of the federal money haven’t yet been issued. But based on what city officials have seen, she said, lighting improvements to help fight gun violence and stormwater management projects in disproportionately impacted neighborhoods would be permitted uses for the funding.
Chad Smith, president of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said he was happy to see some positive movement on problems that have long plagued his neighborhood.
Flooding this summer has “been bad,” he said. While the water eventually recedes, it leaves muddy puddles at the edges of the roads where cars are parked and attracts mosquitoes. And at times, streets are flooded as people are trying to get to and from work, he said.
And because the 1,100 homes in the neighborhood are lower-income households that also rely on public transportation, a lack of lighting and sidewalks creates a hazardous situation for people who have to walk down main roads in the dark to get to their homes to and from the bus, Smith said.
The federal funds wouldn’t come close to covering all the costs of the next two phases of drainage improvements in Garden Hills, but under the proposal going to the council, the $6 million to $8 million would cover the entire cost of the proposed lighting programs.
One of the two lighting projects, which would include installing 119 streetlights in all intersections and in the middle of blocks, runs between $4 million and $6 million.
The other program would include $1.9 million for yard lights, exterior lights and video-doorbell installations, according to a report to the council from Nees and acting Public Works Director Dave Clark.
To help speed up and pay for drainage work in Garden Hills, city administration has developed a proposal to issue $69.4 million in bonds to begin a two-year process for design work starting this fall and construction starting in the summer of 2023 for Phase 2 work — part of which includes a detention basin along Hedge Road. Phase 3 drainage improvements would begin right after the completion of Phase 2 in summer 2027.
Phase 1, already completed, involved buying and demolishing 46 properties on Hedge Road and one on Joanne Lane to make way for the proposed detention basin — which will be big enough to hold runoff from a 50-year storm.
The next two phases would be a significant improvement to address the current flooding issues, according to public works spokesman Kris Koester.
To help move the drainage improvements forward, the administration is also proposing establishing a new tax-increment-financing district that includes the Garden Hills neighborhood so that $9.8 million in tax revenue from 2023 through 2039 can be transferred to help pay off the bonds.
Nees said if approved by the council, the proposals would substantially move up the timetable for drainage work in Garden Hills. Phase 2 is currently not set to begin until 2030-31, and Phase 3 in 2033-34.
For Phase 2 construction to begin in the summer of 2023, design work must begin this fall, she said.
An additional two phases, 4 ($38.9 million) and 5 ($57.9 million), would be evaluated and considered on a list of $223.8 million worth of as-yet-unfunded drainage projects throughout the city, according to the report to the council.
If the council decides to move phases 2 and 3 forward, administrators have outlined nearly two dozen steps it will need to take beginning later next month and continuing through the end of 2028.
Meanwhile, the administration is also proposing that the council OK the launch of a planning process for Garden Hills that would work with the pending drainage and lighting improvements.
The infrastructure improvements will address chronic flooding in the neighborhood, replace some streets and add sidewalks and street lighting at those locations, according to a separate report to the council. But it said there is a further need to make sure other critical connections in the neighborhood are made, such as mobility improvements, access to shopping and safety improvements for residents.
The planning effort would be done in-house, led by the city’s planning and zoning department, and would begin as soon as the council directs that.
While he’s happy to see some positive movement, Smith said he concerned about the potential for losing momentum and having phases 4 and 5 uncompleted.
Garden Hills needs all three of the improvements — sidewalks, lighting and drainage — he said.
“If we don’t address all three of these equally, you might as well not spend the money on the drainage,” he said.