Champaign looks at turning parking lot into plaza

CHAMPAIGN — The public input process for a downtown plaza at Neil and Washington streets could begin this fall if city council members support the project tonight.

City council members will meet in study session at 7 p.m. today in the Champaign City Building, 102 N. Neil St.

City officials have wanted to turn a surface parking lot in the heart of downtown into a public park for years, but the project is still in its very early phases. No funding or construction schedule has been outlined yet, but planners say the next several months will be an important first step.

The effort will be "community-driven," city officials say, with public input leading the planning process to make sure it's a highly-trafficked plaza. And they want to make sure they do it right.

"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said city planner Lacey Rains Lowe. "This is really a legacy project. How often do you have this type of space in the heart of your downtown that you get to recreate?"

That's why choosing a good project consultant was so important, she said. Typically, a city would go with a design or architectural firm for a project like this.

"They really focus on what it should look like, what the aesthetics should be like," Lowe said. "What's in it kind of becomes an afterthought."

So, instead, city planners want to partner with a New York City-based nonprofit group called Project for Public Spaces, a "planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities," according to its website.

Lowe said the group employs a unique planning process focused on community input on the front end to ensure the finished product is something that residents will use.

And, since city officials have no dollars budgeted for the downtown park right now, they think having a community-driven outline for a plaza will make Champaign more competitive when it comes time to start applying for grant money.

Parking remains a question, too. The new plaza would go on top of a 130-space surface parking lot, and Lowe said city officials have not yet begun to deal with how to address that.

The use of that parking lot has peaks and valleys depending on the time of day, Lowe said.

"I think there could be better ways to engage the space than just parking," she said.

Assuming city council members support the project on Tuesday night, planners are looking at mid-November for the first set community meetings.

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just_wondering wrote on August 27, 2013 at 8:08 am

I wonder how all the downtown businesses feel about "...parking...have not yet begun to deal with..." and "...better ways to engage the space than just parking...". Most of the time that I go to downtown for dinner (one of those peak times perhaps?), the surface lot is full so I use the parking deck. During the Illinois Marathon weekend, I even had to park on the top level of the parking deck because it was so full. If I can't find a place to park, I can't go out for dinner and spend my money at a downtown restaurant.

mrseeu2 wrote on August 27, 2013 at 9:08 am

What a wonderful idea.  Downtown has really turned into a destination spot.  The new hotel will only add to the metro feel of downtown.  Having a park in the very heart of the city is genius.  Let's not put this off too long, let's get the meetings and planning stages started so that the community can start enjoying this space.  I have been very impressed with this Mayor and City Council and their ideas and this only adds to my confidence in their leadership. With the addition of the new park hopefully some developer will demolish the building to the north of the new park at the corner of Washington and Neil and put a new building there.  It's really getting to be an eye sore in an otherwise beautiful area.  Why can't the city council demand that the owner at least repair the glass and frontage. 

moderndaycowboy wrote on August 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Ride your bike. That's what we've been told to do by our illustrious King Koos (he's the mayor for those that don't know) if we want to visit the new uppity town Normal. King Koos, interstingly enough, owns a bike shop. Sounds like Champaign is moving in the same direction as Normal.

Danno wrote on August 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm

I demand the City Council to place a parking meter in your driveway.

shurstrike wrote on August 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Excellent idea.  That parking lot is an eyesore, straight out of the 60's.  I've always considered it the bane of the whole downtown redevelopment.

I know, I know, it saves some the burden of walking - wait for it -  all the way across the street *gasp* from the underused parking garage.  No having to run out to beat the meter maids to your car to add more time and no having to haggle quarters off of your companions because you've used all yours.

I think that the potential for hosting events, beautifying the downtown, and just giving visitors a place to kick back is well worth bidding that old slab farewell.

pattsi wrote on August 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

History repeats--once upon a time in never, never, land this parking lot had a fountain, seating around the fountain, enough space for the Children's Musum to hold outside programs in the area of the fountain. But some decision maker decided to cap the fountain. Next step, remove the fountain. Now we are talking about spending money to redesign something that was once designed and was torn out. The circle is now complete.

Mqqneyes wrote on August 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm

 Remember when there was a park downtown called West Side Park...oh wait,,, it's still there. 

Illini Libertarian wrote on August 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm

The public park space is a good idea.  However, a street and some parking must remain in front of the existing storefronts.  Otherwise, the owners of those lots will get hosed.

Nice Davis wrote on August 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Nothing says "libertarian" like demanding the government give freebies to private businesses...

Marti Wilkinson wrote on August 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Pattsi is correct - I remember when downtown Champaign had a plaza and it was a thriving area until the mall opened up. I may well be dating myself here, but I remember when Sears, JC Penneys, and Robesons helped to make the downtown area a thriving community. It was after the area became blighted that someone had the not very smart idea of tearing the place up. 

The current growth of downtown is not something that can be attributed to the current council. However, it is work that is being continued by the current council. My concern is that it doesn't appear to matter how much the city chooses to develop the area, the traffic infrastructure surrounding downtown is still cumbersome. For anyone who is not from the area, the one way streets and the distance from the Interstate is a drawback. I've been driving around there for years, and I still find it a pain sometimes. When you look at the building boom that hit North Prospect in the 1990's, the traffic to the area became very intense, and bottlenecks often occur during busy parts of the day. So paying attention to how the roads work around here is very important.  

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mikeyy wrote on August 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

neg  neg  neg  stiicks in the mud for advancement    run your mouth  before you even  think,,,,,   did you  gps that triangle at neil and washington ????   not  there

Lostinspace wrote on August 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Fine with me.  I can't think of a reason to go downtown, but if I do, I'll stop and smell the roses.

MsLee502000 wrote on August 28, 2013 at 11:08 am

I work in an office that is along the parking lot the City is trying to get rid of. I order supplies and have Fed Ex deliver them. How will the delivery trucks be able to get my copy paper and other office supplies to me if they have to walk a block with big, heavy boxes? Will they stop delivering to me? Also currently our cleaning crew takes our trash out to the trunk of their car parked right in front of the office, then drive it around to the back of the building. We have no access to the back of the building other than walking or driving from Neil Street to Freemont. Will they now have to walk our 6 bags of trash around to the dumpster? We don't need more benches for people to rest on. Take a look at the parking lot various time sof day or evenings or weekends. It is used, it is useful, it is needed.

Danno wrote on August 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Some interesting perspectives; Yea - 4, Ney - 6, Circular/Present - 2.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm
Profile Picture

We did this already.

 

Doesn't anyone remember?

 

Moy's Tea Garden?

 

 

Nice Davis wrote on August 29, 2013 at 10:08 pm

One was a street, the other is a parking lot.

Pretty different situations.