Arguments Against Olympian Drive

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Resistance to Olympian Drive has been
growing more vocal in recent months—
here’s a compendium of positions against
the extension expressed by the CU community.
At a marathon Urbana City Council
meeting on March 22nd, Eric Thorsland of
Tomahnous Organic Farm gave the following
assessment of the situation: “54 tons of
composted manure—that’s what I’ve done
since Friday, what I’ve spread on my boutique
fields… That’s 108,000 pounds of
poo, which I thought was a pretty big pile,
until I read the facts on Olympian Drive.”
Olympian Drive is a proposed East-
West arterial road north of I-74 that would
link I-57 in Champaign to US-45 in
Urbana. Urbana officials say the road will
result in 6,000 to 8,000 new jobs after the
Olympian Drive corridor is developed in
the next 20 years, and that expansion to
the North could bring in an annual $2 million
from property, sales and utility tax.
On April 12th, the audience at the
Urbana City Council was standing room
only, with over three hours of public input
largely against the Olympian Drive project.
Carol Osgood waxed poetic before the
council painting Olympian Drive as a train
sitting at the station. She urged the council
to hear how Urbana citizens do not want to
be on this train, that it’s not too late to get
off—but once the train starts moving, it
will be a lot harder to jump off.
Those against construction of the road
say projected benefits —decreased unemployment,
increased tax base for school
district, fire department, and police—
won’t materialize, and that hopes for these
outcomes are based on studies and figures
that are outdated or inaccurate. Folks are
skeptical given the amount of unused
industrial land already in CU—to the tune
of 2,000 acres—including empty land
south of the interstate and at Five-Points.
Farmland in the path of Olympian Drive
will be destroyed to make way for the road.
Estimates on the lost acreage range from 85
to 200 acres just for the construction of the
road. Another 1,600 acres could be lost due
to businesses expansion to meet the new
road. Squire Farms, Prairie Fruits Farm, and
the Ziegler Family Centennial Farm are all
located where the road is projected to be
built, and have been central to the “Say NO
to Olympian Drive” campaign. They believe
this road and projected growth would turn
productive farmland—that adds millions to
the local economy—into concrete.
Paving over farmland and encouraging
sprawl is deleterious to Urbana’s environmental
sustainability goals. Suhail Barot, a
graduate student at the University and chair
of the Student Sustainability Committee,
remarked, “One great thing about the city of
Urbana is that I’ve never had to go to a city
council meeting… I’ve had to go to the city
of Champaign to ask them to bring in multifamily
recycling. I have to fight with University
administration virtually every day. But I
don’t have to deal with Urbana. So I’m saddened
that I have to come before the city
council for something like Olympian Drive.
This is really the first environmental issue
that I’ve seen in the past 6 years that the city
government is on the wrong side of.”
Is Olympian Drive sprawl? A quick look
at a satellite map of the area shows the road
will connect a whole lot of nothing but fields
and streams. Some call it a classic road to
nowhere—one that’s being built before the
need for a new road arises. Olympian Drive
is likened to a “ring road”—a high-speed
arterial road around Champaign-Urbana
that if implemented would weaken the
urban center and encourage growth and
development at the edges. Over at Smile
Politely, Stuart Tarr notes that the concept of
the ring road is perfectly reflected in the map
of the Champaign-Urbana Urbanized Transportation
Study Long Range Transportation
Plan; Olympian Drive is just the portion of
the ring to the North.
The plans for Olympian Drive wereoutdated
years ago. Smart development and
urban design have changed dramatically
since then, when Olympian Drive was first
conceived in the document Major Street
and Highway Plan for the Champaign-
Urbana Area. The current iterations continue
on the same premise that the road is
needed—a premise more in line with the
design ideas that created twentieth century
suburban sprawl. Sprawl means increased
dependency on cars, more land taken out
of other use to accommodate cars, and
higher infrastructure costs.
Others believe the lack of jobs isn’t a
reflection of lack of space, but about the
city’s people-friendly policies. One CU resident
said, “Urbana isn’t in need of new land
in order to attract business, it’s in need of a
different attitude, and that attitude is one
that the residents would prefer it not take.”
After studying Champaign’s Cost of Land
Uses Fiscal Impact Analysis, Urbana resident
Bill Cope calculated that even if the 6,000 to
8,000 new jobs and the increase to tax revenue
are achieved, the city will experience a
net loss because of the high cost of providing
services to the proposed build-out area.
Creating more industry isn’t the only way
to support the economy—supporting local
farms is supporting the local economy. Buying
food that’s locally produced puts money
back in the community that would otherwise
be spent toward food and goods produced
elsewhere. Local farmers contribute
substantially to the local economy each year.
Prairie Fruits Farm is a vision for Urbana’s
future. It’s a working model for returning to
smaller-scale organic farming in Illinois.
According to the USDA, one-tenth of 1 percent
of Illinois farmland is currently devoted
to organic production. Urbana stands to gain
from protecting small farms and encouraging
more small farms to take root here: to feed
the community and feed the sustainability
movement close to Urbana’s heart.
Despite continued opposition and concerns
over the dialogue, the Council voted
unanimously to send resolutions forward
authorizing an intergovernmental agreement
with the City of Champaign and Champaign
County to accept $5 million for design and
land acquisition for Olympian Drive. The
roll call vote will take place on April 19.

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