Downtown Champaign plaza idea rejected for now
Officials disagree on what's best next step for area
CHAMPAIGN — City administrators' talk about laying a plaza over a city parking lot in the middle of downtown Champaign was put to rest Tuesday night when council members said they were not ready to embark on a conceptual design process.
Worries over the availability of parking and differing opinions about how to bring downtown Champaign to the next level after years of business development ultimately got the best of the idea in a 5-3 vote.
Assistant Planning and Development Director Rob Kowalski said officials likely will direct the $50,000 they would have used for the design process to some other project in the downtown area. Building a plaza is outlined as a goal in a 10-year-old plan for downtown Champaign, and Kowalski said city officials might revisit how to accomplish that sometime in the future.
Downtown business people were skeptical of the plan. They generally agreed that there are a few ways turning the parking lot at Neil and Washington streets into public open space could be done right — but there are also a lot of ways to do it wrong.
"Parking is a grave concern for me," said Merry Ann's managing partner Tony Pomonis. "I believe that downtown needs more retail, and I want to incentivize people going downtown."
Zoe Stinson, acting director of the Orpheum Children's Science Museum, said she was "disappointed" by the vote.
She said that while drop-off and parking immediately in front of the museum is important, especially for children, having open space right there could have been an opportunity, too.
"I actually think that it's a great idea to have the green space out there because we could do programming," Stinson said. "It would actually be beneficial for us."
The discussion Tuesday night often touched on deciding the next step for downtown Champaign. Most agreed that city efforts over the past couple decades have developed a hearty bar and restaurant environment, but not much retail or opportunities for families.
Council member Marci Dodds said she thought a plaza might be able to drive that next step.
"Retail follows people," Dodds said. "You're not going to get somebody to come downtown unless you can show you've got foot traffic."
But she, along with Deborah Frank Feinen and Tom Bruno, were in the minority. Other council members said they wanted to focus on development in other areas.
Council member Karen Foster said she sees more opportunity first where the city recently built a two-block-long "greenway" around the Boneyard Creek along Second Street and south of University Avenue.
"At this point, I don't see a further need to expend another $50,000 for another project such as the plaza when we have the Second Street reach," Foster said. "I would like to see more development from downtown to midtown."
Council member Vic McIntosh was among those who weren't so sure that a downtown plaza is the right next step to drive different kinds of traffic to downtown Champaign. Maybe someday, he said, but to look at it now is premature.
He said he'd rather city administrators focus on how to bring more small business and housing to the downtown area.
"We're never going to have a Sears store or a Meijer or a Lowe's down here; that's gone," McIntosh said. "But I think we ought to focus our thoughts on small local businesses that basically cater to people who live downtown."