CHAMPAIGN — A caller who doesn't know any better might think he has the wrong number when he phones The Ice House tavern on North Prospect Avenue.
"Neighbors," owner Diane Bennett will answer.
The friendly greeting doubles as the prefix to the Ice House's official name — The Neighbors at the Ice House — and it's indicative of Bennett's attitude to the surrounding residential neighborhood.
"If we all took better care of our neighbors, soon the circles would overlap, and we'd all be taking care of each other," Bennett said.
There aren't many neighborhood taverns in Champaign, but the ones that exist used to have an expiration date. Now city officials are working to make bars in mostly residential neighborhoods more permanent.
"They do become a social gathering place," said Planning Director Bruce Knight. "If nothing else, I guess it's a deterrent to drinking and driving."
For years, bars like The Neighbors at The Ice House and Huber's, at 1312 W. Church St., were operating under what officials call a "mitigation plan." That contract set the terms of their operation in a residential area, and it also prevented them from rebuilding if the bar were to be rendered uninhabitable.
The city's zoning ordinance was the issue. The bars had existed under early, lenient rules, but as city officials began to put new regulations on their properties throughout the last century, they were deemed "nonconforming." They were grandfathered in under the old zoning regulations, but any substantial changes to the property would need to bring the bars into compliance with the zoning district.
But the rules on the residential areas excluded bars as an allowable use. Now city planners are rethinking that policy.
"This whole idea of authorizing uses and making them go away, unless they're noxious uses, doesn't make sense," Knight said.
Under the old zoning regulations, the Ice House was first scheduled to close in 1991, when it was granted a five-year extension of its nonconforming status by the Zoning Board of Appeals. It was granted another extension in 1996, and had been operating under a mitigation plan since 1997.
Huber's took a bit of a different route to legality. It was given more permanent status when the city council added taverns as a provisional use to the neighborhood commercial zoning district in 1997. That ruling allowed the bar to stay open, contingent upon city council approval and under restricted hours.
More recently, the neighborhood commercial zoning district saved The Neighbors at the Ice House. The bar is thought to have opened in the 1920s, before any kind of zoning regulations were adopted in Champaign. In 1926, under the first zoning laws, it was designated as a residential property, and had been operating as a nonconforming use ever since.
This fall, the city council changed its zoning to "neighborhood commercial." That will allow it to stay open indefinitely, so long as it follows the rules that it can only operate from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
"As long as they're operated in a way that doesn't have a negative impact (on the surrounding neighborhood), it's nice to have services nearby," Knight said.
The change is consistent with city planners' burgeoning philosophy of encouraging "complete neighborhoods," residential areas with employment opportunities and other services. Officials have referred to providing the essentials to be able to "live, work and play," all in one neighborhood.
Huber's and The Ice House are two of several bars that operate in or near residential neighborhoods. The Illini Inn in Campustown is another, and it is still operating under the mitigation plan. Knight said city officials may consider a rezoning of that property soon.
Sun Singer Wine & Spirits at 1115 W. Windsor Ave. opened in 2003. It never needed a rezoning because the land was already designated "neighborhood commercial."
Brian Christie, the manager at Huber's, said he regularly recognizes customers as residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
"I see a lot of people, customers that live close enough to walk here," Christie said. "It saves them going to a bar and having a beer, then having to drive."
Bennett said she plans to be in business for a long time with the recent rezoning. But more than that, she said she feels "a huge responsibility" to the city and the neighborhood.
"We work really hard with our neighbors," Bennett said. "I work particularly hard with the kids in the neighborhood."
She puts them to work, she said, cleaning the parking lot and the adjacent railroad tracks.
Most importantly, "I listen to them," she said.
The complaints about the neighborhood taverns have been limited, Knight said. In 1994, Huber's lost its appeal for an extension of hours when several neighbors rose in opposition. Two years later, the Ice House gathered 70 signatures from nearby residents who favored an extension of hours.
In the nearly three years she has owned the bar, Bennett said, she has never heard any complaints from neighbors. In fact, two years ago when she sought to petition the city for the rezoning, she gathered 1,300 signatures from residents within a mile radius of the bar.
And she has renovation plans now. The second story will be remodeled, and she plans to add a brick outdoor seating area.
"It's kind of miraculous that it (the building) is still here, especially if you're here when the train goes by," Bennett said.
She is hoping her renovations help improve the aesthetics of North Prospect Avenue. The neighborhood is an entryway into the University of Illinois for students, parents and sports fans, she said, and its appearance is a reflection of the city of Champaign.
"One of the reasons we wanted to become part of this neighborhood is because we wanted to be with the neighborhood," Bennett said. "That's why it's called Neighbors."
This story appeared in print on Dec. 4.