Champaign city planners test-fitting Neil plaza ideas

Champaign city planners test-fitting Neil plaza ideas

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CHAMPAIGN — City planners working on a downtown public plaza are putting ideas to paper and seeing what sticks.

Faced with a parking lot about the size of a football field, located at the corner of Neil and Washington streets, the planners will see which publicly-submitted plaza ideas are physically and financially feasible.

Senior Planner Lacey Rains-Lowe said city staff have gathered public plaza input for some months now and are ready to make a preliminary design.

"We're thinking about maximizing the impact from a design standpoint," Rains-Lowe said. "One of the biggest requests was space that could be programmed in a variety of different ways."

Rains-Lowe said the public input process will still continue — on a smaller scale, with stakeholder meetings and focus groups — for a couple of months while the conceptual design is made.

It will return on a bigger scale — in the form of community-wide feedback sessions — when designing is done.

A lot of aspects are kept in mind while designing, Rains-Lowe said, including utilities, management options and building codes.

"This is more of a place-making plan," she said. "It looks at how the future plaza and the surrounding downtown work together ... for events we already have and could have."

Some of those already-conducted events are larger, like Friday Night Live, but the city is also looking to comfortably accommodate smaller events — think noontime yoga sessions.

The plaza will also be built for hosting events during every season, Rains-Lowe said.

"We've seen a lot of interest in an ice skating rink," she said. "Some cities have refrigerated tubing underneath the concrete, and you wouldn't know it was there until winter."

Some specific plaza features that the public has expressed interest in, according to Rains-Lowe:

— An open-lawn area with some form of grass or seating.

— Ground-level water features that people can interact with but aren't like a children's splash park.

— Movable seating and spaces to eat and work outside.

— Being family-friendly and pet-friendly.

— Shade and areas for kids to play.

— Components that change throughout the year to keep people coming back.

Because the plaza is being planned to occupy a parking lot, the city could replenish the lost spaces in different areas. Rains-Lowe said it will be a tricky decision because some people want to keep the same amount of parking spaces, while others don't mind letting them go.

The city's Neil Street corridor, which spans from Interstate 74 to the future plaza, is also being redeveloped. Planners on each project are working together to make sure that none of their designs clash, Rains-Lowe said.

A combination of private, public and grant dollars will go toward building the plaza. The city has created the website for the public to describe their preferred plaza vision in five words or less.

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