Lincoln Square: From epicenter to comfort space

Lincoln Square: From epicenter to comfort space

Just before 10 o'clock on a recent February Friday morning, Chelsey Campbell is standing near what used to be the entrance to the original Carson Pirie Scott department store. Today, Tang Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant a few feet to her left is the marquee establishment at that entrance. Inches away to her right is a "For Lease" sign for the available space inside Lincoln Square.

Campbell, who grew up in the southeast Champaign County village of Homer, is at the mall every day. She works in the basement for Carle.

"It's unique to come here for work every day," Campbell said. "It's kind of cool for the Urbana infrastructure."

Once a beacon of the community, the 53-year-old Lincoln Square has seen its purpose shift over the years from a shopping mecca with stores like Carson's, Bergners and Baskin Men's Store to a space that's used in a variety of ways with a fitness center, an art shop, a grocery store co-op and office space housing Carle and Health Alliance among others.

"I know it was once a really big deal," Campbell said. "It was one of the first malls in the area. It's fallen into disrepair, and it's kind of a bummer now."

Opening in 1964, Lincoln Square was built on nine blocks of commercial and residential property purchased south of Main Street and was the first downtown shopping mall in Illinois and one of the first enclosed malls in the country.

It's now a multipurpose facility today where people come to work in their office jobs, exercise at Charter Fitness or even get their sweat on by walking around some of the 318,000 square feet of space inside the sparsely populated mall.

On this day, 86-year-old Gene Ziegler of rural Urbana is among a dozen or so folks walking around Lincoln Square. But he's not doing it for exercise. He's got a purpose. He's cutting through the mall to get to the courthouse, where a family member is set to appear.

"I've spent 80-some years in this community, so I've seen a lot of changes in here," Ziegler said. "Looking back on what it used to be when it was the old Urbana Lincoln Hotel, when I was in high school, we had our prom dinners. It's kind of sad to see everything is so empty and not much going on."

Sure, the mall isn't what it once was and might not ever get back to its heyday of being the primary shopping attraction for folks in East Central Illinois, but those in charge of it are continuing to get creative with its purpose.

"We're trying to make the mall more visible and try to get more awareness for people who haven't been there and about what's there," owner Jim Webster said. "We're working on upping the events. We're going to have a lot more going forward. We're working on retail spaces. You want it to be an environment where people hang out and enjoy themselves."

Webster works out regularly at Charter Fitness, on the east side of the mall. He's encouraged when he's in the building and sees the people using Lincoln Square for different reasons. There are music events featuring fiddlers and people dancing.

About 10:15 this particular Friday, Champaign's Amanda Patton is standing near a wall dancing to the music in her head. She's taking a break from walking around the mall with a friend and her niece who works in the basement for Carle. As a Girl Scout growing up in Urbana during the mall's heyday, Patton once danced formally at Lincoln Square.

"I'm just dancing right now because I like to dance," she said. "When I was in high school, this was the only mall we had. It reminds me of when we were kids, we used to come here and shop, just hang out."

Patton is glad to see the mall being used by all the different people and, though it's a long shot, would love to see it get back to its old self.

"This is such a beautiful building," she said. "It's quiet and peaceful, and everybody's just so friendly. Put something in it, keep it alive; make it a real mall again."

At 10:25, Eddie Dickerson is zooming through the mall, headed toward the north entrance. But like Ziegler before him, the Urbana man isn't doing this for the exercise.

"I'm about to catch the bus to go to Wal-Mart," he said.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District has a stop on the north side of the building taking riders to all corners of the twin cities.

"I'm in here like there times, I've been doing that since I moved here 12 years ago."

Dickerson sees Lincoln Square as a place that could help with the economic development of Urbana.

"I'd like to see more businesses open because when you do that, it provides job opportunities for other people, and that will be beneficial for the community," he said.

Over by the dozen or so tables in the food court, which features Piato Cafe, John Roeckeman is holding a book and stretching.

"I come here about once a week to get some reading and reflecting done," Roeckeman said. "I like the open space, and I see some old friends, so I'm just comfortable here.

"I'm appreciative that the city of Urbana has made opportunities just for people to come and walk. My wife and I were here yesterday doing some walking; we may do it today. It's a place to see friends."

One of the larger store fronts, in the east wing of the mall, belongs to the Art Coop, an art supply retailer. From her perch at the main counter, manager Anna Peters gets a good look at all the people milling about the mall throughout the day.

"I think it surprises a lot of people; they're surprised when people are here walking around," Peters said. "I'm here a lot during the day when all the Health Alliance people are here, so it always feels really busy."

Art Coop has been in Lincoln Square for eight years, and despite the limited traffic in the mall, Peters prefers to set up shop in Lincoln Square.

"I would much rather be here in this mall than the big mall (Champaign's Market Square); we wouldn't do very well there," Peters said. "We moved over here because we needed more parking, and there's lots of parking here, so that's helpful. And then I think lots of the art students from the university live in Urbana, and lots of artists in general tend to live in Urbana."

Peters grew up in Champaign, graduated from Champaign Central and has seen the changes of the mall throughout the years.

"I came over here mainly on Saturdays when the farmer's market was happening, so that's my experience with it," she said. "My high school had our prom out here in the courtyard. I'm used to it being like it is today; I've never thought of it as being weird."

Still, Peters sees some potential with the vacant space inside the shopping center.

"They do that great Urbana Business Association grants," she said. "I think there could be some good pop-up stuff or short-term things."

One of the shining lights of the mall today is the Common Ground Food Cooperative located on the east side of the building.

"The co-op and the Art Coop kind of define the mall now and make it not a mainstream mall," said Yusef Hermes, an employee at Common Ground. "So this is a center of Urbana for artists, and we get the hippie types, and it could be even more of an art center. I think it could be a cool, hip spot if we could fill more of the space."

The man charged with maintaining the look of the space is Peter Bartley, who at about 10:45 is pushing a large dust broom across the floor near the food court.

Bartley doubles as a custodian and security at the mall and spends eight hours a day there interacting and watching the various people come and go.

"I like this place, I get to meet a bunch of people, I see different colors and creeds here, come from different walks of life," Bartley said.

Bartley enjoys working at the mall because of its historical significance. He can tell you all about it being one of the first enclosed malls in the country and the significance it had on the community in the '60s and '70s.

"This isn't just a piece of local or Illinois history here; this is American history," Bartley said.

The lack of significant retail space isn't a great thing for the folks at Piato Cafe; however, they've got their group of regulars from the office workers inside the mall to the traffic that comes in from the courthouse.

"We've been here 11 years, and I've seen it get better, then worse and then kind of plateaued," said Meagan Quigley, Piato's office manager.

They've got a small, but loyal group of regular customers at Piato's, and they keep tabs on one another.

"There's a huge sense of community. We have people where if we don't see them for a while we'll have someone call and make sure they're OK at home," Quigley said. "We have people call us to say, 'Hey, I'm sick, don't send anyone to my house.'"

It may not be what it once was, but one thing is clear to those who spend at least an hour on a cold Friday morning at Lincoln Square. The people, whether they're walking, just passing through or getting their exercise in, are happy to be there, and they're appreciative of the old architectural marvel being a part of their community.

"We have an environment that's conducive and comfortable," Webster said. "A lot of people like to talk about memories they had at Lincoln Square and growing up. I think there are a lot of people who still have good experiences there."

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787 wrote on February 21, 2017 at 8:02 am

One thing that never helped Lincoln Square was the past agressive enforcement of the parking lot, by the City of Urbana.  People eventually grew tired of it and went elsewhere.... permanently.

There were no chalk marks on your tire, and no parking tickets at Market Place Mall.  Another reason why the City of Urbana is in the condition that it is today.... bad decisions.

RatDog wrote on February 21, 2017 at 9:02 am

It's time to tear it out and open the street again. These cities have some lousy traffic flow problems & building malls & painting zig zaggy lanes everywhere makes it worse.

Homeboy wrote on February 21, 2017 at 9:02 am

I will never forget going there a couple nights before Christmas probably thirty years ago to just run in to grab a certain gift. It was close to blizzard conditions out and It only took me around ten minutes to run in and out. When I got back to my car there was a parking ticket on it. I said from that point on I would do all my shopping at market place or anyplace that didn't have meters. 

Bob from Champaign wrote on February 21, 2017 at 10:02 am

What happens when Carle opens its new facility over in SW Champaign?  I assume this is one of the spaces they will leave. 

MahometMatt wrote on February 21, 2017 at 12:02 pm

How can you write a detailed article about the state of the mall and its future without making any mention of the fact that the largest employer of people there--Health Alliance--will take literally hundreds of jobs out of that location and consolidate them with other office operations at the new facility being built now at the I-57 interchange at Curtis Road?  That will not only deal  a potentially fatal blow to the mall by losing its largest tenant, but it may also be a terminal loss for any downtown restaurants that cannot afford to have their lunchtime customer base shrink by hundreds of people overnight.

illinirazorback wrote on February 21, 2017 at 2:02 pm

This.  After they move, Lincoln Square is dead, along with downtown Urbana.  It's sad, but the city (and many of its residents) brought it on themselves by constantly fighting change.  This article just fuels that notion.  What's up with NG playing business favorites lately (Lincoln Square, Taco John's) while banishing new small businesses from the website (It's Your Business)?

The only hope is that they can realize this in time to save the rest of the city.

Lostinspace wrote on February 21, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Haven't been there in quite a while.  Ditto for the equally depressing big box area.  Judging from the Fed-Ex and UPS traffic in our no-outlet street, it seems that others don't do much shopping locally either.

Save the Farms wrote on February 21, 2017 at 7:02 pm

Everything has a time and times change. 

I was there when Lincoln Square opened as a jewel of the Twin Cities.  It is now a largely empty aging space that has to be expensive to heat and cool within a building that is expensive to maintain with rotting parking lots. 

Lincoln Square, Sunnycrest, Country Fair, even Marketplace Mall have all aged beyond their time.

Urbana has 6 blocks of prime real estate that can be recovered if Lincoln Square is removed.  The giant hole creating the Carson Pirie Scott basement would be a good start for a giant apartment complex akin to what is popping up in Champaign around campus.  Maybe neither main road, Green and Broadway, will be recovered, but it sure would improve traffic flows to and through if either or both were.

Agree to demolish Lincoln Square, give Jumers some decent space, the Federal Courthouse and the Church as well, but imagine what would happen if a couple buildings and a new hotel, or an innovative Coop for retirees, were built and a few hundred to a thousand people moved into the area.

The University is on a path of growth and it's inevitable that some large, rather expensive, apartment complexes will be looking for space within walking distance of campus. 

I used to love going to Lincoln Square at Christmas and seeing the color TV at the corner of Green and Broadway - I'm sure many have similar memories.

However, it is time to recognize reality, bite the bullet, tear down Lincoln Square and remake Urbana as a robust city with a strong center populated with people, not empty space and memories.

jparks wrote on February 21, 2017 at 9:02 pm

Sorry Save The Farm, but they are too busy trying to figure out how to accomodate all the Syrian refugees they want to house in Urbana.  Wait.  A high rise housing complex for the refugees.  Perfect.  I knew Laurel would figure it out.

Save the Farms wrote on February 21, 2017 at 11:02 pm

Laurel has had her day, Eric too...this city needs to circle around and get back to becoming a vibrant place to live instead of pursuing questionable projects and minor changes to policing.

We need to think bigger and the demolition of Lincoln Square is a wonderful place to start with reimaging our city.

Let the "I might make it" try on Philo road, but we should really focus on cleaning out Lincoln Square and rebuilding the center of the city as a start of revitalization and the focus as we all know there are limited funds.  

A couple nice, huge apartment complexes, one for students to keep the bars noisy, another with retirees to complain and smile at the kids they know are our future would be perfect.

What other Central City allows residents to walk to a mature, and gorgeous park (Crystal Lake), right next to a primitive woods (Busey), with golfing the next stop?  The Fair Grounds are there and Carle hospital is just a hop-skip and a jump away - everything a retirement complex would need and want.   Campus is a long few blocks, but the MTD can solve that with a Hopper.  Snucks, the stores, all a great start for people who want to walk to what they need.  

Reimage Central Urbana, it's all there...take a chance and demolish Lincoln Square.  Nothing happened with Burnham until Champaign tore it down, then the whole area started popping and took off. 

We need to take a chance and reimage our city and see what happens - I think it will be good because I trust people to make it good.

I loved Lincoln Square, most of everyone with any history of Urbana does too, but it's time has passed.  Time to let it go and move on.


Save the Farms wrote on February 21, 2017 at 11:02 pm

I didn't add a sentence in for you jparks...and your acerbically appropriate comment...but choose to use your comment as a springboard to prognosticate more.

I will endeavour to do better in the future. :)


IlliniwekMerica wrote on February 22, 2017 at 8:02 am

The mall is owned by a private party and, to my knowledge, hasn't received the sweetheart deals (read: money thrown down a pit) from the city as the adjacent hotel. I'm sure as soon as the lease income doesn't cover the $150k in real estate taxes plus insurance and other costs, the building will be sold and likely redeveloped. Which is likely to happen once it's largest tenant, Health Alliance, moves out in 2018.

The city owns all the parking and most outlots though, so redevelopment would have to go hand in hand with Urbana. So really, this is a plead to voters to avoid Laurel Prussing at all costs, because she's proven she can't handle city center redevelopments (read: throwing money down a pit doesn't work).

pattsi wrote on February 24, 2017 at 8:02 am

Probably a decade and half ago, Emily Talen, UIUC professor of urban planning,   and her urban planning students produced a "reimaging" plan for Lincoln Square and downtown Urbana. Where is that plan when it is needed today. Unfortunately, historically, many a great plan is produced by students, but never given serious consideration.

C in Champaign wrote on February 24, 2017 at 12:02 pm

In truth, the real problem is that it isn't just the mall. Real estate developers, at least the the long time successful local ones, have abandoned Urbana, (other than the areas directly on or adjacent to the UI Campus) and the out of town firms have learned to stay away, far away. Just ask them, they will tell you they dont have interest in Urbana. Who wants to invest in a city with a citizenry that has a record of doing everything imaginable to block, or make development difficult, and an administration that refuses to stand up to them in defense of the developers for the good of the community? Sure, they say they want it, but when push comes to shove, all it takes is a handful of outraged comrades to block the way...

Just wait, at the first sign that someone might want to tear down Lincoln Square, the historic preservationist will be out in force, seeking landmark status, and protections, chaining themselvesbefore the bulldozers of progress, toting signs that say "Save our mall, bring back the whale!"

Homeboy wrote on February 25, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Urbana business association is an oxymoron for sure.