CHAMPAIGN — Imagine downtown Champaign with three times as many buildings as it has now.
In the 1950s, businesses lined Walnut Street north of Main Street, and the western area of Champaign's downtown was populated with building footprints and rooftops — not pavement, as much of it is today. A flatiron block at the corner of Washington and Neil streets has been razed without a trace.
But to imagine all those buildings, you'll also have to imagine the downtown area with about one-third the amount of available parking. Developers sacrificed eight buildings on that flatiron block for 144 parking spaces in what is now a city lot. Dozens more were installed in lieu of shops on Walnut Street, and you should not have a problem finding a space near the Virginia Theatre.
The demolitions started in the '50s, when cars were only getting bigger and more popular.
"The shift happened, and we lost half the downtown," said city planner T.J. Blakeman. "And we're still paying the price for it today."
Today, if you walk from PNC Bank at the corner of Walnut and Main streets to Guido's restaurant at Neil and Main, you'll pass a sportswear shop and a real estate brokerage office along the way. Most of your time will be spent crossing a parking lot.
In 1959, if you made that same walk, you would have passed a hardware store, a furniture shop, three clothing stores, three shoe stores and a jeweler.
"Downtown Champaign in 1951 was the North Prospect of East Central Illinois," Blakeman said. "That's where you came."
Today, people plan trips to go shopping in Chicago, Blakeman said. Back then, residents of East Central Illinois planned trips to go shopping in downtown Champaign.
"All the things that downtown used to have, we don't have any more," Blakeman said.
The city's campaigns since the 1990s have been focused on bringing people back to downtown Champaign. A tax increment financing district — a special fund used to inject more property tax dollars and investment into a particular area — has helped city officials redevelop parts of the downtown and encourage business infill during that time.
The city council approved a provision that allows cafes to operate outdoor seating, like those that line Walnut Street north of University Avenue. And special ordinances allowed outdoor plazas, like the alley behind a string of businesses just east of Neil Street.
It is all meant to give customers and businesses a sense of place.
"I think what we lost in 1969 was this idea that people want to have this intimate connection with the place that they're in," Blakeman said.
A 1969 downtown plan could have made Champaign's core very different than it is today. That was about the time that Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana had been built, and Champaign was looking to build a mall of its own.
According to the plan, it would have been right in the center of the downtown area. The new mall would have closed Neil Street, and expansive, elevated parking decks would have formed its wings, dominating a huge portion of the city's core.
It was a pretty extreme idea at the time, and Blakeman said it makes even less sense in retrospect.
"I guess it's lucky for us that they didn't do it," Blakeman said. "It's unlucky for us that they started those plans."
Even though the downtown Champaign indoor mall was never built, an outdoor pedestrian mall opened in 1975 when officials closed a portion of Neil Street between Main and Chester streets. The goal was to bring people to the center of town, but instead it just pushed everyone away. Drivers were forced to take Randolph and State streets and avoid the core of downtown.
"It just choked off downtown," Blakeman said. The pedestrian mall closed and Neil Street was reopened in 1986.
Even before that time, parking was in high demand and a popular issue. Mayoral candidates purchased full-page newspaper advertisements explaining their plans to increase parking.
And they delivered. When Market Place Mall was built in the 1970s, an entire city flatiron block at Neil and Washington streets was demolished to make way for parking at what was then Sears and Roebuck, just a few doors down from the Orpheum Theatre. City officials were trying to convince the owners to stay in downtown Champaign.
Not long after, Sears moved anyway to the mall, where parking was virtually unlimited.
Fires have taken their toll, too. Many downtown buildings have burned and were replaced with parking lots. After a fire in the 1980s, the land where the One Main development now stands could have gone that way, too, had city planners not waged a silent battle to save the precious real estate.
The land was turned into a temporary parking lot after the 1987 fire. A development agreement to build One Main was a tough sell to the drivers who had been parking there.
A more recent fire has left a hole burned at the corner of Church and Neil streets, where the Metropolitan Building used to stand. Some have been wondering why it is still an empty hole surround by a chain-link fence.
"That's the reason the Metro Building isn't a parking lot," Blakeman said. "We don't want to fight that battle."
But even with all the pavement, vacancies still exist in downtown buildings today. And with an economy experiencing a painfully slow recovery, it is questionable whether the local economy could support such density downtown.
Blakeman said the downtown "never will meet New York City density, where you don't need a car." But with the encouragement of city policies, the downtown could look more like it did in the 1950s, though he admits that maybe it is an ambitious plan.
"You need those places to keep the engine going," Blakeman said.
See Patrick Wade's blog for more photos and maps of downtown over time.