Expect lots of talking before downtown project goes forward
URBANA — Whatever happens with Champaign architect and developer Gary Olsen's mammoth Metro Centre project proposed for downtown Urbana, it won't happen quickly.
"This is Urbana. There will be plenty of public discussion about this," Mayor Laurel Prussing said after the city council devoted nearly two hours to reviewing Olsen's project, which now includes seven stories of retail, office and residential space (including the possibility of a "boutique hotel"), plus two levels of underground parking and a separate townhouse development.
Estimated cost: more than $84 million, including a 15 percent contingency. Earlier estimates in the range of $14 million to $16 million "were just to get in the ground and get it ready for the building," Olsen said.
"He's got a big idea," Prussing said. "We'll just have to fill it out and see if it's the right size, how it's going to be done."
"People did think big here, even since the beginning. People had big ideas," she said, citing the settlers who chose Urbana as a county seat, those who worked to bring the University of Illinois to Champaign County and the Urbana investors who built the old Urbana-Lincoln Hotel in the 1920s.
"People do things," Prussing said. "They have a vision and they just finish it, no matter if the times are tough or not."
That said, Prussing has concerns about the mass of Olsen's Metro Centre project. For now it is about 350,000 square feet (or as he told the city council, 8.2 acres of enclosed space). The nearby Champaign County Courthouse is less than half that size: 146,339 square feet. And the M2 development in downtown Champaign is about 225,000 square feet.
"I am concerned about the size; I want something that fits in with the general landscape," she said. "But on the other hand, if you're going to do in-fill (development), maybe it's time to go beyond two stories or three stories."
Prussing said the city council and city residents will have input into the final product.
"It's our land," she said of the city-owned block north of the city building. "We're going to be very much involved in what's the proper scale, what's economically viable. You're never going to get a perfect answer, but you get a better answer by having a lot of discussion about it."
Olsen didn't have a problem with that sentiment, suggesting that he'd be willing to meet with neighborhood groups and even let elementary school children pick the project apart.
"This building may be owned by someone else but it's the city of Urbana's building," he told the city council. "And I think you can always make it what you want it to be. You have the talent and the knowledge of a lot of university people here."
Olsen said it likely will be more than a year before any construction begins on the site now occupied by a Goodyear store and a parking lot.
"It's certainly another year or so away. But that doesn't mean that all the planning can't continue," he said.
For one thing, he said, it's going to take time to line up financing.
"I'm not going to go to any banks," he told the city council. "As a matter of fact, I don't think any bank in this county would even touch this project, not because it isn't beautiful, but they don't have the lending capacity to do this."
Instead, he said, he'll rely on private capital.
"I will probably get a group of investors who might think this is a good project. It's possible we might get two or three who have money just sitting there and they think this is a good return on their investment," Olsen said.
The economy may be bumping along now, but Olsen sees better days ahead, and suggested the timing of his project could be serendipitous with the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Square across Vine Street. The onetime retail center — the first indoor shopping mall in downstate Illinois — opened in September 1964.
"I think the United States will slowly get out of this," he said. "That's what I'm counting on. It will be a much better situation when this building is dedicated, maybe in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of our beautiful shopping center that probably needs some help too."