CHAMPAIGN — A plan to examine expanding the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign also could include looking at new residential development, office space for the city of Champaign and even the feasibility of a nearby site for a much-discussed minor league baseball stadium. The board of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which owns the 12-year-old downtown Champaign transportation hub, is expected to choose this month or next a consultant to examine the potential for expanding the four-story, 50,000-square foot building, and whether it could be the anchor for more downtown development. At a minimum, said MTD Executive Director Bill Volk, the Illinois Terminal needs more space for all the bus lines — local and intercity — now at the building. The MTD has added service in recent years and several other bus lines, not in operation a dozen years ago, now operate out of the terminal. “We just move in and out,” Volk said of the local buses, “but there is a fair amount of congestion when we have a lot of buses in there at one time, and the buses have a lot of difficulty maneuvering to get in and out. Adding all these intercity lines has made it worse,” he said. “It’s pretty booked up at this point. We’re running out of space there.” Volk hopes to build at least “a finger” to the southwest of the existing terminal that would have new intercity bus platforms, along with a new indoor waiting area. But he also believes there’s a market for development above that expanded wing.
"One of the things we did when we built Illinois Terminal was we built extra space on top and we used the revenue from that, as well as our state funding, to cover our operating expenses. We've been successful doing that and there are very few public buildings that actually do cover their operating expenses, particularly when we have so much public space, non-leasable space, on the first two floors. So we didn't add to our local deficit at all with the building. Our hope is that by expanding the building for additional transportation purposes that we'd be able to do something similar to that."
If the terminal is expanded, Volk said he'd like to see it become "a public-private partnership deal where we would not lease the space above it. There would be a private entity. By leasing the space above we would have a revenue stream to help pay for the space on the first floor, and wouldn't add to the deficit."
The city of Champaign also is interested in what becomes of the consultant's study, which is expected to take about 15 months to complete.
"We're interested from two standpoints," said City Manager Steve Carter. "One, we're tight on space here and we've been looking at different locations downtown. We've said that financially the timing hasn't been right and that we haven't found the right location as well.
"In our discussions with council from a few years ago, we're looking possibly for space for Neighborhood Services outside the building. They have some undesirable offices in the building and it's just tight. That would be one possibility. We've also had discussions about the possibility of a one-stop shop for building permitting."
Some communities, Carter said, have building inspectors, zoning administrators, city engineers and similar work staffs in a common location. Champaign has them in three separate buildings.
"So we're looking at the potential of a location for a one-stop shop for our code and building review people," he said.
Carter said the city also would like the consultant to look at the feasibility of building a downtown baseball stadium on the west side of the Canadian National Railroad tracks just south of the Illinois Terminal.
"It's one of those sites we'll probably want to take a look at. To the extent that they have someone looking at the Terminal and being able to have that person kind of think of how that might fit in in terms of parking and everything else, we would look at that as a baseball site," said Carter.
Marco Steel "may not need that space much longer," Carter said of a recycling yard south of the Terminal building.
"Whether that could fit in there and serve as an economic development stimulus is something we'd want to take a look at," the city manager said.
And both Volk and Carter said that MTD-owned land on the east side of the Canadian National tracks could become the site for residential development. The land currently is used for parking.
"One idea would be some market rate housing. If you look at the city's plan for that area, it is to increase housing there. It would be a mixed-income type of thing," Volk said. "One of the problems with our community is that we are creating a lot of service jobs but they don't necessarily pay the greatest. In order to have services you have to have people and the closer they are to the jobs the less expensive it is to live. So if there could be some housing close to downtown it would help."
Carter concurred. "That whole area south of University (Avenue), we would like to see that developed residentially. If some of those older buildings can be renovated for residential that would be great," he said. "We've talked about that as a potential site for some workplace housing, upscale but affordable for people who have normal jobs downtown and would be within walking distance."
The extent, cost, and financing of an expansion of the Illinois Terminal are all up in the air, Volk admitted. The original project was built for $12 million with a combination of federal, state and local funding.
"A lot of people thought it was pie in the sky when we built the building in the first place, that Amtrak wasn't going to be around," he said. "But now we need to look, to make sure that it has the capability of supporting high-speed rail, should that come about," he said. "(Former MTD board member) Jerry Dobrovolny pushed it pretty hard that he did not want the building to add to our deficit. He wanted us to have a revenue stream, and it worked."
Said Carter, "The Illinois Terminal, I know that people wondered how the heck it would be used once it was built; it's become a model for cities throughout the state of Illinois."
Similar developments have been built in Normal, Peoria and Rock Island, and a ground-breaking was held in Joliet last week for a $42 million transit hub there.
"I think this next step makes some sense in terms of how they might expand, and what else might go in there," Carter said of an Illinois Terminal addition.