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.