Orchard Downs: The Fate of a Community

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Orchard Downs is University-owned 160-acre site of graduate
student housing – bordered by Race Street, Kirby
Avenue and Windsor Road in Urbana. Chancellor Herman’s
Strategic Plan for the Urbana campus requires that
Orchard Downs be redeveloped over the next few years to
include retail stores and retirement services. And although
the new development will profoundly affect those the site
currently serves, the university administration has taken
very little input from them.
Orchard Downs housing’s biggest draw currently is that
it offers a community environment for families and international
graduate students. The top countries represented are:
China, Korea, India, and the United States. There are 778
units which are generally 85-90% full. While the majority of
residents are Graduate students, some of the units are intentionally
kept empty to serve as temporary housing for visiting
scholars. Orchard Downs offers good services for residents:
a free after-school program for 5-12 year olds, community
center, study room, free English classes, computer
lab access, and playground equipment. Every Saturday
morning the Sewing Room offers residents an opportunity
to repair clothing and the Lending Storeroom has various
household articles such as lamps and kitchen items which
are loaned free of charge to be used as long as a student is
involved with the University. Residents can grow their own
food on garden plots and take advantage of the frequent
MTD service offered. The “Neighborly News” is a weekly
newsletter published by the Family Housing Council especially
for Orchard Downs residents.
The most controversial aspect of the redevelopment
plan is the near 50% reduction of graduate housing units
and the subsequent loss of services that would result in
forcing many residents to leave. In their place will be highend
retail and residential units for well-to-do seniors.
Both Devonshire Development and Vermilion-Fox-
Atkins plan a mixture of retail space and residences. A
focal point in both plans is the Osher Lifelong Learning
Institute, a center that will provide educational programs
and health and wellness activities for adults over age 50.
Another element is the lifestyle center, a privately owned
space despite it’s open-air venue structure that squeezes
more fancy stores, upscale restaurants, and coffee shops
into less space. This structure relies heavily on the financial
support of well-to-do consumers.
Devonshire Development and Vermilion-Fox-Atkins
presented their designs at a May 2 forum at Beckman Institute
and exhibited them May 16 at the Alice Campbell
Alumni Center to collect public feedback. While the
Administration has offered these meetings for the public’s
input, little focus has been on the current Orchard Downs
residents: the graduate students and their dependents. The
meeting locations have been far away from Orchard Downs
and scheduled during exam time which made it difficult for
current Orchard Downs residents to participate especially if
they have children. The Public Input discussions have not
addressed the details on the budget or how current renters
will be affected despite the demand by the public at these
meetings. The university plans to hire a consulting firm to
prepare feasibility studies and financial analyses.
Tuition will go up in the fall. Tuition has doubled at
UIUC in the past 6 years. Many graduate students are supporting
dependants and choose to live in Orchard Downs
because they are raising families or taking care of elders and
Orchard Downs allows renters to give one-month notice
when they have to break their lease. The current rent for a
two bedroom unfurnished apartment in Orchard Downs
for students $605. Many graduate students who have 33%
appointments over the 2006-2007 school year earned a
minimum monthly gross stipend of $922.97 a month.
That’s before taxes and university fees or health insurance.
Seventy-five to 80% of Orchard Downs residents are
internationals from more than 70 countries. International
students have additional visa restrictions on how many
hours they are allowed to work for the University. They cannot
work more than a 50% appointment (20 hours a week)
This is separate from their PhD work and they cannot legally
get paid for any work outside the University. Certain
types of visas restrict spouses from being able to earn an
income. To add to this stress university departments are not
required to even give 30 days advance notice when they
offer appointments to graduate students. In some cases they
receive notice the day their appointment starts or the day
classes begin. Summer appointments are extremely limited.
Chancellor Richard Herman said last month “I want to
see (UIUC become) the best public research university in
the nation… We need to increase the diversity of our faculty
increase the prominence and excellence of our students
among other things… it means we need a global
presence… a larger national presence…” The financial insecurity and high stress graduate students
face affects their work which in turn
affects undergraduates, faculty, and departments
on the whole and ultimately affects
the research status of this public university.
The Orchard Downs Housing Council
has petitioned Vice-Chancellor Renee
Romano asking that a committee be
formed to allow residents and other interested
parties the ability to provide input on
the development. The committee will consist
of 2 Housing Council members, 2
Community Aides, 2 GEO members and 6
residents. An input session for residents
with Vice-Chancellor Romano and the
Director of Capital Development of
Orchard Downs, Fred Coleman, The first
meeting to discuss this committee happened
June 14th at Orchard Downs Community
Center. Residents and GEO members
attended this meeting.
The summer timeline for the redevelopment
stipulated that a master developer
recommendation be presented to the
Chancellor at the end of June. In July the
Chancellor was to have his recommendation
– which could have been to use one of
the plans proposed by one of the developers,
portions of both or neither plan – presented
to the President and the Board of
Trustees. As yet, however, no firm decision
has been made. A link to preliminary survey
results from Public Input submitted
can be found online at www.orcharddowns.
uiuc.edu. It had been anticipated
that the master developer would be authorized
to proceed with the chosen design in
August. It is unclear if the developers will

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