Downtown Champaign today versus the past

You may have read in the newspaper today that city planners are trying to reverse a historical trend in downtown Champaign (and in dense areas all over the nation) toward fewer buildings and more parking lots.

City Planner T.J. Blakeman was kind enough to submit a huge amount of drawings and photos so I could have a comprehensive understanding of what downtown Champaign used to be like, but not all of it made it into print. I'm posting some of the most interesting stuff here, so I hope you enjoy.

First, the links below are business maps (PDFs) comparing downtown Champaign in October 1959 versus downtown Champaign today. It was fun to take kind of a virtual walk through the downtown of 50 years ago; You'll see there was a Walgreen's on Neil Street and Park Avenue, a Sears on Hickory Street (which is now a parking lot), and my personal favorite, a typewriter shop on South Neil Street.

There is no shortage of photos from downtown Champaigns of years past. Explanations below.





The first three photos are from the Metropolitan Building looking south on Neil Street. Not sure if you can make it out, but the Walgreen's is on the corner of Neil and Park, toward the left side of the first photo. I wish I could check out King Henry's Pub myself.

This second photo is also from the Metro Building looking south on Neil Street. Building density-wise, nothing has changed here, but you can see how the businesses turn over.

The third one is fun to look at. Check out the street car. If someone thinks they can put a date on this photo, let me know.

The fourth is the southeast corner of Neil and Washington streets in the early-1900s. Notice the flatiron building on the left (which used to house The Gazette, which later became The News-Gazette). This is the block where The Orpheum is now.

The next photo shows what happened to that block. We're looking at the same area here, but the flatiron building and the block behind it has been razed for parking. The parking was designed to accomodate Sears, which moved to Market Place Mall not too long after all this happened.

The next photo, with Kaufman's toward the right side, is Main Street sometime between 1916 and 1924. You'll see First National Bank (now PNC Bank) toward the middle and the Lincoln Building in the background. All the buildings between First National Bank and the foreground of the photo are now gone, and now Main Street looks like the seventh photo, as captured on Friday by N-G photo editor Darrell Hoemann.

The eighth image is another interesting photo Blakeman put together. This is an aerial map of downtown Champaign, and Blakeman laid a scale outline of Market Place Mall over the top. The actual structure is outlined in blue, and the mall parking lot is outlined in red. Walking from your car to Macy's could be roughly like walking from the Virginia Theatre to Memphis on Main, for example.

Blakeman said it goes to show how walkable the downtown really is, and pedestrians might not realize it (hence the demand for parking). It's a different atmosphere than an indoor mall, but if all the parking was on the edge and real estate in the core was saved for building density and business, the concept would be the same as the indoor mall.

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Lostinspace wrote on May 31, 2011 at 9:05 am

Well, I hope they do something; as of now, we have absolutely no reason to go downtown, and that is a real shame. The big box area is an ugly, uninviting mess; that means we buy almost everything on line.
I lived in Champaign nearly 50 years ago, and the downtown was fine for a mid-size city. Bring on real stores (food, drug, hardware, etc.), plus plenty of free parking, and we'll be there.