Dan Corkery: Same site, 30 years later

Dan Corkery: Same site, 30 years later

The plan was bold, as bold as any Champaign-Urbana had seen in years.

"I think the council is impressed — they can't help but see it and say 'wow,'" then-City Manager Steve Carter told The News-Gazette in 1988.

The proposed $60 million Champaign Center project — stretching from University Avenue to Springfield Avenue and tucked between Walnut Street and Champaign's railroad tracks — comprised a hotel/conference center and retail/office complex, a new downtown transportation center and a federal courthouse.

Some ideas don't die; they just hibernate.

Earlier this month, developer Hans Grotelueschen laid out plans for $95 million hotel/conference center and office/apartment complex that would include an expansion of the Illinois Terminal and space for three ice hockey rinks.

All in the same location as the Champaign Center project three decades earlier.

In late 1987, Gerald Stillman, a Bloomington native and an accomplished developer from south suburban Chicago, dreamed of a massive makeover of downtown Champaign.

He saw opportunity in Champaign-Urbana, which had recently seen the opening of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and where officials hoped supercomputing would make the twin cities a technology mecca.

"I see the area growing over the next few years," Stillman told The News-Gazette. "I think this will help with that growth."

Officials from the city and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District took Stillman's proposal seriously. Stillman and his Mid-Continent Development had extensive experience building and renovating McDonald's, plus developing and managing offices, retail and hotels.

At the time, the MTD was exploring a new transportation center that would serve its own riders, plus Amtrak and intercity bus passengers.

Stillman's project looked promising, but there were doubts.

He would need financial help from the city in the form of an expanded tax-increment-financing district. How much money Stillman would request wasn't clear.

Would the complex — with 62,000 square feet of convention and exhibit space — create new business by drawing in shows and groups that had been passing over C-U? Or would Champaign Center drain customers from existing commercial areas — resulting in no new growth?

And while the project was being vetted publicly, Stillman — who died in May 2008 at age 71 — did not own all the land he would need.

Like Grotelueschen, Stillman had an ambitious construction schedule; he was hoping to break ground in spring 1989.

But when spring came, the only thing being broken were Stillman's plans.

First, Uncle Sam had other ideas. The new federal courthouse would be built in Urbana, not Champaign.

Second, the Inman Hotel, which Stillman wanted to raze, had another interested party. The Westin Financial Group of Berkeley, Calif., would convert the building — which once housed the National Academy of Arts — into housing for seniors.

And third, Stillman had legal disputes involving some of his projects in suburban Chicago. Longtime Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar said at the time that Stillman had overextended himself.

"I wondered if his successes were rolling too fast," Claar said in April 1989.

Another bad sign came in May 1989: Stillman was to be the featured speaker at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, but he canceled.

"Only the most urgent of business matters prevents my attendance," his letter said.

A year later, city and MTD officials conceded they had reached a stalemate with Stillman.

Whatever market advantage he had a year or two earlier had slipped away.

Other in-town hotels were in the works (Hawthorn Suites at Trade Centre South and Hampton Inn in Urbana), and architect Neil Strack and property owner William Youngerman were in talks with Champaign to create another downtown development called One Main. (Their plan did not come fruition. But in 2004, developer Jon "Cody" Sokolski succeeded.)

While Stillman's dream was never constructed, another building was.

Starting in 1991, MTD's board and management renewed talks about a stand-alone "Intermodal Transportation Center."

And talk they did.

After two years of construction and public bickering, the Illinois Terminal opened in January 1999.

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com, and his phone is 351-5218.

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pattsi wrote on July 30, 2017 at 10:07 am

Just to fill in a bit more of this backstory--the chosen site for the present MTD transportation building evolved out of Hub White's, a UIUC architecture professor and the individual chosen to oversee the construction of Buell Hall, architecture studio. Many of us argued that placing the building west of the tracks rather than east of the tracks would stimee redevelopment from First to Sixth. Best siting could have been on First across from the pedestrian underpass. This would have created a design option for connectivity of a transportation center going east and west. Now the tracks have been a barrier to connectivity going east.

MahometMatt wrote on July 30, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Downtoan Champaign was a veritable economic wasteland back then.  Hopefully, the fact that downtown has already gained so much traction over the last 13 years, since the opening of One Main, the current proposal, or other large-scale projects that include conference and hotel space, will come to fruition.  If Bloomington-Normal can sustain a mid-sized metro area hotel and conference center (the Marriott in Normal in that community's Campustown), and East Peoria does so with its Embassy Suites and connected conference center (across the river from a city wtih virtually no nightlife), surely our population base and larger student population can sustain something comparable or grander here.