Temporary pop-up park ready, permanent plan in the works

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — A pop-up park in a particularly underserved Champaign neighborhood received its finishing touches Wednesday ahead of a grand opening ceremony Thursday night.

After about three months of planning, Hedge POP! Park has popped up on the corner of Hedge Road and Garden Hills Drive in the Garden Hills neighborhood for the past few weeks. It is the only playground for about 400 to 500 households on the south side of the quarter divided by railroad tracks.

“There’s a park at Garden Hills School,” said Rob Kowalski, the city’s deputy director of planning and development. “But what we’ve heard from a lot of kids this side of the railroad tracks is that they’re not allowed to cross the tracks to get into this park.”

The pop-up park is temporary. Kowalski said it’s an 18-month placeholder until a long-awaited neighborhood project begins.

“This project is actually about building a drainage basin that will solve the flooding problems in the neighborhood,” Kowalski explained.

The city has allocated between $12 million and $15 million in federal funding for coronavirus relief as part of America’s bailout plan to end the ongoing problem, but those projects are a while back. Kowalski said the catchment is still in the design phase and the city expects groundbreaking in July 2023.

ARPA funds will also go towards adding sidewalks and lighting throughout the neighborhood.

“People have to walk on the streets without sidewalks, sometimes they’re flooded, and there are no lights at night, and it’s not a safe situation,” Kowalski said.

The blocks on the north side of Hedge Road were cleared last year in preparation for the pool, creating a large open green space adjacent to the much smaller park. The city has cordoned off the land with a fence of large tree trunks.

Robert Mullins had a front row seat to watch the phases of the project from his veranda.

“Those stumps they put there, I think that was a really bad idea,” he said.

“They had the weekend parties up here and down here every weekend,” which is why city officials say they’ve closed the country to cars.

“It doesn’t put them off,” Mullins said, admitting that at least it put people off Parking in the open area.

“Now they have the parallel parking lot,” he said, pointing to a line of cars on the corner of the street by his home, where his 4-year-old grandson often rides his bike.

Kowalski said cars are likely frequenting the plaza because side street parking isn’t allowed, but the city is considering changing that if they rebuild Hedge Road and a few other streets in the neighborhood.

“Once that’s done, if they had a place out there to ride their bikes, it would keep them off the streets, but [cars] get through here at 75-80 mph every day,” complained Mullins.

“This stop sign should say ‘go’ instead of ‘stop’. I’m serious.”

The solution is still a few years away. Meanwhile, Mullins keeps an eye on his grandson, who was delighted with the new amenities.

“It’s been a really long drive,” said Roya Nassirpour, the city’s park project specialist. “But we’re just excited to see it all come together

The programs will run throughout the summer wet pour. The Hip Hop Xpress Crew will be at the RC Car Track every Monday and Thursday from 5pm to 7pm throughout the fall, with a different activity planned each week.

Nassirpour said the city is still looking for ideas. Proposals can be submitted through June 30 on the city’s website. The program specialist said that a banner with the plan will be hanging in the park soon.

There will be a larger, more permanent park in the coming years. Kowalski said city officials first need to figure out exactly where the pool will be, and the city wants to get more input on what community members would like to see in this future park.

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