Neil Street Plaza a perfect real-world case study for UI landscape architecture students

Neil Street Plaza a perfect real-world case study for UI landscape architecture students

CHAMPAIGN — Plans and schematics for what could become Neil Street Plaza — on what is now a triangular-shaped parking lot downtown — are already finished, with city staff now focused on finding funding.

But in Conor O'Shea's landscape architecture class at the UI, coming up with a design for the odd-shaped lot was students' final project, complete with critiques from top professors in the architecture department.

Whether the city needed help or not, the project still provided aspiring architects with a perfect scale for exploring basic ideas of land form, materials and composition, the professor said.

"The scale is just right for the studio," he said. "It prepared students for what they'll be asked to do once they enter practice. The small urban plaza is something a lot of landscape architects work on. The site's importance as a potential civic space, it just cries for some sort of really enlightened landscape-driven intervention."

Wholly independent of the city's process and vision for the Neil Street Plaza, students presented final projects that focused around making the future space a place of relaxation, for unique experiences and a spot to gather and get away.

For Anran Li's design "Modulating Flow," it was important to keep people at the north side of the site, where she's envisioned a concrete theater, with giant blocks growing out of green mounds facing a similarly designed block to project movies on. On the south of the site near One Main Plaza, Li pictures upright concrete slabs next to seating and landscaping that can serve as a cultural walk.

The latter is something Champaign residents expressed interest in for the plaza.

"The screen is there so that more people will stay at the top of the site," Li said. "No one stays at the top of the site much now, and I'm hoping the design will allow them to percolate through the area. The slabs will hopefully be used, so local students can put pictures up that they've drawn or for cultural things."

The idea of having an urban oasis away from the hustle and bustle of downtown life was key to Cesar Gomez's "Lure and Disperse" vision.

His design would see a dense forest replace the concrete parking passersby see today.

With landscaping, he'd create five-spiral mounds, each higher than the other the further north they go.

The highest would be 40 feet and put visitors right at the tree canopy.

Katie Le's "Breather" design also focuses on an oasis, with suspended hammocks inside small, hollowed-out mounds, and an inclined lawn on the north side with a small tunnel cutting through and a cargo net gym in the middle.

"The point is to create a space where people can relax and enjoy their time; calm down a little," Le said. "Creating paths makes the area transient. This was so they can enjoy the site as a destination, not a place to pass through."

The plaza project itself remains a work in progress.

But Champaign Senior Planner Lacey Rains said the city has applied for two grants to help cover the costs of initial work — one from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the other from the AARP.

"They're small grants. This won't pay for the whole thing," Rains said. "But it would help us do some lighter, quicker, cheaper things and targeted improvements."

Rains said the city has not heard back about the state grant, which she admitted "are always a little tricky."

But with multiple retirement communities in the downtown district, Rains said the city is optimistic about the AARP grant.

"Fingers crossed," she said.