With students gone, Campustown worth exploring
CHAMPAIGN — There's something strange about the streets of Campustown this week.
They're quiet. They're fairly empty. You can drive the speed limit without playing dodge-the-pedestrian.
With University of Illinois classes out until Dec. 2, most students left Friday for a week of holiday celebrating.
This is your chance to grab a slice from Papa Del's or a doughnut burger (it's true) from Fat Sandwich and check out what's new in Campustown — without dueling for a parking spot.
Name the nationality — you can probably eat it somewhere near campus.
The Champaign Center Partnership lists more than 60 restaurants and bars in Campustown, clustered along six blocks of Green Street and a few blocks to the south. And a growing number are international in flavor.
Ethnic cuisine is hot, and developers see a captive market in the UI's burgeoning international student population, said Erin Lippitz, executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership. At last count, the UI had more than 9,400 students from around the world.
On the stretch of Green between Wright and Sixth streets alone, you can get Italian food (Za's and Antonio's, which just re-opened after being closed for three years), Japanese (Sushi Rock), Mediterranean (Casablanca Kabab House), Greek (Zorba's) and "new Korean" (Spoon House), which includes, among other things, Korean-style tacos. And construction is underway at the old Follett's Bookstore on a two-story Panda Express, a fast-food Asian eatery that apparently has strong student appeal.
The blocks to the west have more pizza parlors than you can count, plus Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Japanese food.
After years of little choice besides Illini wear, Campustown now has several clothing stores, and boosters hope to attract more retail.
Urban Outfitters opened at 507 E. Green in 2008, the first retail anchor there in years and a student favorite. Several boutiques have since come and gone, but this fall, two new shops opened in the old Follett's building: Apricot Lane and Ragstock.
"Campustown doesn't have a lot of clothing stores," said UI student Aubra Hickerson, 20, browsing at Apricot Lane last week. She's thrilled to have two just steps from the Alma Mater.
The two new stores are geared toward college students but have "townie" appeal, too, Lippitz said.
California-based Apricot Lane, which carries women's clothing and accessories and has 80 stores nationwide, is a boutique that's "trendy but affordable," said store manager Lindsey Flessner.
Ragstock features edgy men's and women's clothing (read: metallic pants) as well as "recycled" items — including a large stock of '80s-era Christmas (and Hanukkah) sweaters.
"If you need an ugly Christmas sweater, this is the place," said employee Nate Benson.
Pitaya, a women's clothing store at 625 E. Green damaged in a 2011 fire, has not returned; the renovated space is vacant.
Many Campustown outlets will be closed Thanksgiving Day but keep regular hours the rest of the week. Several are also offering promotions on Black Friday, and at least one — Flat Top Grill, 607 S. Sixth St. — is donating 10 percent of its Tuesday proceeds to the Red Cross Central Illinois Disaster fund.
Gone today; HERE tomorrow
Don't bother looking for IHOP or Garcia's Pizza. They've gone the way of Fol- lett's, Steak 'n' Shake and the Co-Ed Theater, making way for new development.
In IHOP's place near Fourth and Green will be a $30 million, 16-story apartment tower called HERE @ University of Illinois. And a $6 million, five-story apartment building is going up on the site of the old Garcia's and White Horse Inn. (Fear not: White Horse has reopened at 510 E. John St.)
Other high-rises are underway or planned: a $10 million, 14-story building at the southwest corner of Sixth and Green, from Bankier Apartments; and a $50 million hotel-apartment complex planned for the parking lot on the northwest corner of Sixth and Green, by JSM. Both will have first-floor retail.
The growing number of chain stores and restaurants and apartment towers has provoked criticism that Campustown is losing its character, becoming more corporate, pushing out the little guy. Some examples: Cold Stone Creamery, Starbucks, Potbelly and, just recently, Jersey Mike's sub shop.
Champaign city planner T.J. Blakeman, a history buff, challenges that premise. Independent businesses are opening constantly, he said, citing the new Sakanaya sushi restaurant at 403 E. Green.
"When I came to school in 1999, Campustown was so neglected," with broken sidewalks, and vacant storefronts, he said. "There was just very little activity, very little investment happening."
The city has poured millions into redevelopment, with road improvements and new streetscaping, and that's fueled business interest, he said.
National franchises are fighting to find space in Campustown, and "they wouldn't be doing that if we weren't having some success."
Students are also familiar with national retailers, said Jill Guth, JSM's director of property management and former president of the Champaign Center Partnership. "They're the same ones that are in their hometowns, so there's a comfort level there.
"Campustown lease rates are probably the highest in Champaign-Urbana. Typically, a national retailer is going to be able to afford those more than a startup," Guth added.
The high-rises help the city's tax base and prompt students to live close, Blakeman said, negating the need for cars that might add to congestion on city streets.
Smoother roads ahead
The city plans to redo the streetscape along the rest of Green west to First Street in 2016. The goal is to create the same look and feel of the blocks closer to campus, with wider sidewalks, roadwork and better lighting.
A word to the wise in the meantime — avoid the street craters on Green.