Council focuses on parking, planning in plaza discussion
CHAMPAIGN — City council members want the parking question resolved before a key city parking lot in the heart of downtown is turned into a plaza, but they are moving forward with a "placemaking" process to occur over the next few months.
That process likely will include community meetings to gather input regarding what citizens would want to see in a park at Neil and Washington streets, but design and construction are still a ways off.
As some downtown business owners expressed concern this week over what they thought could mean the elimination of parking in front of their shops, city council members voted 6-3 on Tuesday night to move to the next step in the planning process.
Some city council members shared those concerns about parking and asked city administrators to resolve that question before they move much further.
Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said the parking question is "central to a lot of those conversations" as the city goes forward. He pointed out that there are about 1,100 city parking spaces within a block of the Neil and Washington parking lot, which itself has 130 spaces.
"As we go through this process, our intent is to look at a lot of different options," Knight said.
Meyer Drapery owner David Meyer said some of the patrons to those businesses along the parking lot are not always able to move easily.
"Some are, but many are not that mobile," Meyer said. "The product we sell is about 70 pounds. We don't strap it to their back and send them to the parking deck with that."
Orpheum Children's Science Museum executive director Sonya Darter said she has concerns about the threat it could pose to visitors, but also sees it as an opportunity to bring in new patrons.
"This part of downtown really needs a gateway, and I think it could really increase capacity and really enhance downtown," Darter said.
Most council members were confident that city administrators could solve the parking problem as they move along in the process. Mayor Don Gerard said it may turn out that the city does not need to provide a large amount of parking.
"We can't work it out if we don't move forward," he said.
Instead of going straight to a design firm, city officials first want to convene a visioning process to include community members' ideas on what should go in the park. Before Tuesday night, administrators wanted to contract with New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces for $52,400, but council members said they would prefer the city first seek other proposals before settling on a firm.
There is no money budgeted for the downtown park right now, but officials think having a community-driven outline for a plaza will make Champaign more competitive when it comes time to start applying for grant money.
The money was a concern for council member Vic McIntosh, who voted "no" with Michael La Due and Karen Foster.
"We don't have it, and anybody out here knows how we're struggling," McIntosh said.
Council member Marci Dodds said she loved the idea and an opportunity to roll it out in pieces. She said she liked the idea that city officials could start small with the park, try it out and see if it works.
"I like this idea, precisely because it's different," Dodds said.