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."

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787 wrote on April 09, 2014 at 12:04 pm

How about using the $50,000 for downtown pothole patching?

Or it could be used as a hand-out to the Library.

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 09, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Good point.  The money could go toward buying salt for next winter also.  There are many essential things that the $50,000 could be spent on.

Nice Davis wrote on April 09, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Money from the downtown TIF can only be used within the boundaries of the downtown TIF. It can't be spent on salt or the library.

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 09, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Thanks davis.  They cannot even salt, or fill the potholes within the boundaries of the downtown TIF with the money?  Where did the money come from specifically, and what can it specifically be spent on?

Nice Davis wrote on April 09, 2014 at 9:04 pm

With the caveat that I'm not entirely sure on the nuances of this particular TIF district, my hunch would be that the money could be designated for downtown potholes but not for salting, because while pothole patching is location-specific the salting occurs as city trucks go up and down every city street. But I could be wrong on that.

It's a bummer that councilwoman Foster started talking about directing money to midtown when that's definitely outside the TIF boundary. I would have hoped for a better understanding of taxing districts from our elected officials.

 

e: To answer your other question, the money available for TIF projects comes exclusively from tax revenue generated from properties within the district in excess of what they were generating when the district was fiirst established. In other words, if for example the assessed value of the TIF properties was $600 million when the TIF was created and now the assessed value is $630 million, then the TIF funds are the taxes from that extra $30 million only.

Joe American wrote on April 09, 2014 at 3:04 pm

"Retail follows people," Dodds said. "You're not going to get somebody to come downtown unless you can show you've got foot traffic."

Marci need only go a couple miles north to see that people follow retail, not the other way around. Whether you ike North Prospect or not, it was cornfields before it became the largest retail shopping area within 50 miles.  And people followed.