Olympian Drive, Sustainability and Local Foods

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Many of my fellow advocates for smart growth and sustainability
have questioned Urbana’s plan to build the Olympian
Drive extention. After studying the issue and its history, I
believe that there is a need for the road, and that we should
build it in a way that fits our sustainable vision for Urbana
and preserves and supports our local foods movement.
The proposed Olympian Drive extention would be an
East-West connection between North Lincoln and North
Cunningham. It would also include a bridge over the
Canadian National railroad tracks to meet up with
Olympian Drive in North Champaign. Given all the pressing
issues facing our region and the world, why would
Urbana even consider building a road?
There is no direct east-west route and none of the existing
rural roads can carry truck traffic. North Lincoln
Avenue is home to a large and growing base of industrial
businesses and blue-collar jobs. Currently there are over
900 jobs in industries including asphalt, asphalt recycling,
concrete, grocery distribution, shipping, electronics recycling,
waste transfer, packaging, engine and truck repair,
and more. It is Urbana’s only area zoned for heavy industry
and the only location adjacent to a major rail line, important
for moving more goods with less fuel. Yet this industrial
zone is hamstrung by a lack of road connectivity. Because
the existing rural roads cannot carry trucks, many of these
businesses must route trucks far out of the way on a daily
basis. One grocery facility alone generates 40-50 truck trips
per day through residential neighborhoods in Urbana-
Champaign. These trucks drive down Lincoln Avenue,
across Bradley, and up Market Street to get to a produce
distribution facility in Champaign. The Olympian Drive
project would cut the distance of every trip by more than
half and keep these truck out of our urban neighborhoods.
The lack of connectivity is also hampering emergency
response. Two buildings were lost in a fire in 1990 while fire
trucks drove the long way around. Because there is no bridge
over the railroad, it is common for the County Sheriff and
emergency responders to be stuck waiting for a slow moving
or parked train. The crossing is at the end of the rail yard
where trains routinely block the road for 10, 20 or 30 minutes
at a time. Expanding Olympian Drive would improve
public safety and emergency response.
The expansion would also bring Urbana additional bluecollar,
living wage jobs. This is the only growth of industrial
activity in Urbana. The area does have many available lots on
Philo Road, Five Points, or near Downtown Urbana—but
none of these locations is compatible with heavy industry.
Concerns have been raised about the impact the
Olympian Drive project might have on another important
part of our community, the amazing local foods economy
and the family farmers who have worked the land for generations.
Prairie Fruits Farm is a cherished local cheese producer.
It is true that the proposed Olympian Drive Extention
would pass roughly 300 feet south of the farm and would
bisect a field currently growing alfalfa to feed their goats.
However, the benefits of the project outweigh this drawback.
Rather than rejecting the project, I argue that what we must
do is design the road in a way that minimizes any impact on
the local food producers, the family farmers, and on the
environment. This type of planning has already started. In
fact, a location study was completed in 1997 that considered
ten different road locations, including the option to upgrade
existing rural roads to carry trucks rather than building a
new road. After many public meetings and lots of community
dialogue, building a new road was chosen in order to
avoid disturbing any of the existing homes and farmhouses.
The Olympian Drive location was also ideal because it crosses
the Saline waterway at a right angle, crosses the railroad at
its narrowest location, and intersects Cunningham Avenue at
a right angle for safety. Locations further North, such as Ford
Harris or Leverett Road, were rejected because building a
road 1 to 2 miles farther from Urbana would contribute to
leapfrog, scattered development and unconstrained growth.
In the continuing planning process for the Olympian Drive
Extention, we will have the opportunity to design the roadway
with continued emphasis on minimizing the impact on local
farms while meeting our economic and transportation needs.
The width of the roadway can be reconsidered to build a narrower,
lower-impact road. We can plan for tree plantings to
buffer the road and its neighbors. We can use sustainable techniques
for water retention and roadway design. Furthermore,
we can use this planning process to update Urbana’s comprehensive
land use plans in order to effectively address preservation
and expansion of the local foods movement and family
farming. We could create a “green belt” of local foods activity
and foster agri-tourism. For many years, agricultural and
industrial activities have co-existed in North Urbana, and they
should continue to co-exist prosperously for decades to come.
Urbana deserves both a healthy blue-collar economy and a
healthy local agriculture economy.
Many people have questioned whether this road will create
sprawl and become another North Prospect. On the contrary,
the Olympian Drive area is not zoned for expansion of
residential subdivisions or shopping centers. It is zoned for
industrial use and the city’s policy is to promote slow and
compact growth. The city has denied requests from developers
asking to use this land for other projects, because this
is Urbana’s only industrial area with major railroad access.
Many have also questioned whether Urbana should simply
build a railroad bridge but not connect Olympian Drive
through to Cunningham. However, Cunningham connectivity
is important in order to serve and expand the businesses
there including Frasca International and the new Mervis
Industries Recycling Center. Much of North Lincoln lies within
the Champaign School District boundaries even though it
is in the City of Urbana. For business growth to benefit the
tax base of the Urbana Schools, we must support business
activity and connectivity along Cunningham Avenue.
Given the great stresses our region and nation are
enduring, it is also prudent to ask whether now is the
proper time to spend money building a road. Currently
the City of Urbana is accepting a state grant that is not eligible
to be spent on other activities and does not require
any local taxpayer matching funds. The grant will allow us
to begin a public engagement and planning process. All
interested residents are encouraged to attend the public
meetings and advocate for a sustainable roadway design
and a land use plan the preserves and grows our local
foods “green belt”. There is a need for an east-west road in
North Urbana, and we can all have a say in how the road is
built and how the area evolves in the coming decades.

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