Plaza plan poses a problem

Stripping parking spaces from businesses that need it is the wrong way to do business.

Parks, plazas and green space all have their place in an urban setting, but important issues to bear in mind are where they go and at what cost.

Including those more pedestrian factors in the equation raises serious questions about a proposal by Champaign city planners to build a plaza at Neil and Washington streets in an area that currently provides much-needed parking spaces for surrounding businesses.

The city council last week approved plans for further examination of the issue, including partnering with a New York-based group — Project for Public Places — to discern how the members of the public feel about the plan.

At first blush, plans for a beautiful plaza sound great. No one could, at least in theory, be against sprucing up an area that is, at best, rather dull. But that rather dull area, which includes 130 parking spots, serves the important purpose of providing space for motorists patronizing local businesses and restaurants.

It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how owners, employees, customers and suppliers of those businesses would feel about seeing the parking disappear. It's a bread-and-butter issue to them, but not just to them. Those businesses generate economic activity to the city in the form of taxes paid, jobs provided and money spent by their customers.

No wonder opponents of the plan were speaking out both at last week's council meeting and to the public through the news media.

Dave Meyer of Meyer Drapery Service suggested that replacing public parking with a plaza would put him out of business, at least at that location.

City officials defend the plan by noting that this open space is ideal for conversion to a more idyllic setting, and the artist's drawing is quite attractive. Further, they note there are more than 1,000 public parking spaces available in the downtown area that would remain available to the customers who now use the spaces at Neil and Washington.

Empty spaces include those at the lightly used downtown parking garage on North Randolph Street just north of Farren's Pub & Eatery. One need not be unduly skeptical to suspect that part of the plan for the plaza is to push motorists into that parking garage and get its numbers up.

City officials can certainly argue that it would not be a major imposition on motorists who use the lot at Neil and Washington to move over to the parking garage on North Randolph. After all, it's only a block away.

But if that's the measure, isn't it equally valid to argue that those who wish to put the plaza at Neil and Washington can take their interest in green space to West Side Park, which also is about a block away?

The point is that the green space that city planners covet already is there, even if it's owned and maintained by the Champaign Park District.

The city council will continue its review of the proposal, as planners from the city and Project for Public Places focus on sampling the public's preferences for the proposed plaza site.

But those who offer their opinions should keep one important issue in mind — who has more skin in the game?

The average citizen may think plazas are pleasant and, as a general proposition, prefer more rather than fewer of them. But do they want this one at the cost of threatening established businesses? If some businesses leave because customers can't get to them, why would others move in to take their place?

This proposal, if implemented, would require some to sacrifice far more than others. That inequity raises serious doubts about its viability.

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bmwest wrote on September 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm
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If they're going to go through with this plan, perhaps they can split the difference and just use 1/2 of the lot, that closest to Neil, for the plaza and leave the 1/2 closest to the businesses for their patrons' use.  Too bad those businesses don't have entrances facing the lot behind them at Walnut & Washington since there's a huge lot there as well.

Orbiter wrote on September 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm

bmwest, I agree totall with your comment. The businesses there really were shortsighted to eliminate or decline rear access.  It could have been a second storefront at no further charge, for that matter.

Orbiter wrote on September 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Most locals now know about the city parking ramp, and many of us find it convenient enough that I really doubt the loss of parking in the plaza area would hurt businesses there. Local businesses need to sometimes be reminded that the quality of life is part of what brings customers to their locale.  A garden-like plaza could increase foot traffic and stimulate sales.

Some street-level, metered parking should remain, however, to accommodate those out-of-towners who are visiting or just passing through and who know not of the nearby parking facility. We need to face it that even a well-advertised parking facility in the USA raises suspicion and fear among casual visitors because merely pulling into one to check out pricing often incurs an unwelcome and large charge. That ours does not is no comfort to the first-time visitor.