Top of the Morning, March 10, 2014
For 12 years, it darkened downtown Champaign's doorway.
Coming to town from the north? Happy detours.
Walking around downtown at night? Not the best idea you've ever had.
The pedestrian mall — two blocks of Neil Street, part of it covered with a roof, between Church/Main and Chester Street on the north side of the City Building — lasted from 1974 to 1986.
Hard to blame the group of owners and managers of downtown Champaign businesses for trying something. Retail malls were going up all over the country. Plans were well underway for Market Place Shopping Center a couple miles north in Champaign. The downtown as the retail heart of the community was being forever changed.
And Champaign was hardly the only city trying a pedestrian mall. The architect who designed one for Decatur was a consultant for Champaign's. Danville closed a stretch of Vermilion Street for a number of years.
In January 1973, the Champaign business group publicly backed construction of the mall. A special taxing district was formed to pay for it.
Original cost estimate: $710,000. That's $3.74 million in today's money. The bids were higher, construction was delayed, but a contract was awarded in late 1973 to tear out the street and build the mall.
"By encouraging (downtown) to prosper, nourishing it with activity, by 'dressing ourselves up' like we care about ourselves, we can't help but stimulate a better way of life for those whose proximity of residence or business reason places them here," said Myron Sholem, described in news stories as a spokesman for the businesses backing the mall.
There were valiant efforts to promote downtown. Music. Events. "Grape Expectations" was an annual festival put on by an organization calling itself Vintage Champaign. Go on, groan.
I don't remember many tears being shed when Neil was reopened. In fact, there was a parade.
Just before the parade stepped off, Bill Merritt of rural Champaign said this:
"I don't think it'll be as dead down here."