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Downtown Champaign questions? and he'll chase down an answer

Stand at the intersection of Neil, Main and Church streets in downtown Champaign. Look at the buildings at each corner.

Three of them didn't exist at the start of this century and the fourth was a different business entirely.

But the intersection, and the downtown that spreads outward ever farther from it, represents a success story born out of a string of actions by city government, by decisions and investments by entrepreneurs — and even by something as elemental and uncontrollable as fire.

When the weather is nice, hundreds of people are seated outdoors during lunchtime or in the evenings at dozens of restaurants and bars. Festivals clog the sidewalks and pack the restaurants: There's Pygmalion. There's Blues, Brews and Barbecue. There's Ebertfest. Friday Night Live brings families for a two-hour window with a half-dozen entertainers to start the summer weekends. There's the CU Pride Festival and Oktoberfest and the Parade of Lights.

"Downtown is an incredibly vibrant, busy place," said Lois Wacholtz, who remembers when that wasn't the case.

"It's exactly what center city communities, neighborhoods ought to be," said Wacholtz, co-owner of Christopher's Fine Jewelry Design. "Tons of commercial, tons of entertainment. Remarkable — the eateries, the chefs, the variety of menus, of foods and price points. It's just a remarkable place."

With apologies to Petula Clark, though, you could not always go downtown.

In 1976, Neil Street was closed to traffic at this same intersection. A pedestrian mall was built that year, echoing the national — and mostly vain — attempt to combat the shopping malls that were springing up on the outskirts of towns across the country, including Market Place in Champaign.

"Most of the pedestrian malls failed because they built the pedestrian mall but didn't think about what's it going to take to get pedestrians to be on that mall," said Champaign planning director Bruce Knight. "And then they became worse than not having pedestrian space, because they were blank space that people who were just looking for a place to go hang out would go."

"It was quiet downtown," said Jeff Mellander, who has redeveloped downtown properties for nearly 40 years. "There was no evening activity. There were a few bars. ... It was just not very alive."

When the pedestrian mall was built, said Knight, "the downtown area accounted for 34.6 percent of total employment in the community. Market Place Mall opened in 1975. By 1980, the comprehensive plan was talking about strategies for revitalization of downtown. It swung that quickly."

Decades of efforts, including several actions by city government, have swung things back in favor of downtown.

"Getting rid of the mall was key," said Wacholtz, whose offer to buy the building that houses Christopher's was contingent on that happening. "Without that, none of this would have occurred."

✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ In the face of struggling downtowns statewide, the General Assembly created tax increment financing districts in 1977. It was a technique to improve blighted areas by freezing property taxes in the specific area, diverting any increase — the "tax increment" — that resulted from redevelopment to use solely within the district. It made a pool of money available for improvements.

Mellander began rehabbing buildings downtown in 1976. He'd earned a degree in architecture at the University of Illinois but started a technical illustration service and used his architecture skills, he says, for his avocation.

"One of the things you learn when you study architecture is to envision or see things that don't yet exist," he said. "I was fortunate to have a vision and a passion for downtown Champaign early on, when properties were affordable and available. There was a lot of opportunity and there wasn't a lot of examples for other people to go by.

"The momentum grew as I and other people like myself started to redevelop old properties. Over time, people just took more and more interest in that."

With money coming in to the tax increment district, the city launched several streetscape programs, aimed at improving the city at ground level.

That was important for "getting these foundations looked at and restructured, and the sidewalks rebuilt," said Wacholtz. "That also helped define an area. And that gave people something to think about as the downtown neighborhood."

The streetscape program also led, though reluctantly, to a major turning point.

"Through the '90s we had three key phases of streetscape improvements, one of which, in '97, included the rebuild of the streetscape around the Esquire, and we were building that little outdoor plaza area," Knight said. "I'd been up to Evanston to a meeting and they had sidewalk cafes and I came back and thought, 'Well, that spot near the Esquire would be a perfect place for a sidewalk cafe.'

"At the time, nobody seemed interested. I went and talked to Dannel McCollum, (who, as mayor, also was liquor commissioner) and Dannel said, 'Ooh, alcohol on our sidewalks, that seems like a problem, I don't think we want to do that.'"

Bar owners weren't eager, either.

The city council agreed to a one-year test of the idea, and by the end of that period agreed to make the change permanent.

"We sold this idea of a pilot project," Knight said. "I still remember the council study session when there was this big debate about, 'Well, if we're going to allow this, then everybody's going to have to have plastic cups.' And Ed Ryan, bless his heart, said, 'I'm not going to be sipping my cognac from a plastic cup at a sidewalk cafe.' So council sort of relented, 'it's a pilot project, we'll see how it goes.'" (Editor's note: This paragraph originally attributed the quote to a different city council member.)

"When they passed the ordinance that allowed outdoor seating, that changed everything," Mellander said. "That was the single biggest thing that ever happened in our downtown, up until One Main was developed. It was huge."

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The move followed another entertainment-related incentive: The city had begun in 1994 offering a liquor license as incentive to redevelop downtown properties. It was originally a move aimed at helping redevelopment on First Street.

"A lot of those properties over there struggled," Knight said. "And it was because they had a hard time attracting a solid tenant. So we dreamed up the idea of pairing the RIP grants with an A liquor license, which at the time were very competitive to get, with the idea that, 'Let's give these people the opportunity to attract a solid tenant that can pay the rent necessary to cover the cost of the improvements.'"

"That's what started fueling the restaurant and bar increase," Blakeman said, "which, in turn, really became the foundation for what the whole renovation has become, which is more of an entertainment district in the evening and employment district during the day. ... In 1997, there were 11 bars and restaurants. By 2007, there were 31. I just counted: 43 today."

"They've brought people back downtown," said Jim Greenfield, owner and president of Spritz Jewelers, a Neil Street merchant for decades. "People don't say, 'Where's downtown?' any more. They know where downtown is, whereas years ago: 'How do I get there? What street do I use? Oh, it's too confusing.' They know where to park, they know how to get there, they're comfortable coming downtown."

An early adopter was a partnership of Carlos and Marco Nieto and Tifani Moot, who started by rehabbing a former drapery shop into a bar/restaurant and pool hall they named Jupiter's. They moved on to create the Highdive out of what was once a porn theater. Their downtown holdings now include Seven Saints, the Cowboy Monkey, Guido's and Soma.

The city also reimbursed costs for building and facade improvements, and most downtown properties have benefited.

"It's safe to say that almost every single property in downtown has taken advantage of one of our programs in some way," Blakeman said. "There's probably very, very few that have not."

Greenfield got help from the city when he put a new facade on the Spritz building.

"The city's kind of a silent partner. You don't know that I put a facade on and the city helped. I would have done the facade without the city's help, but I knew it was there, so I applied for it and got it. You don't see the roofs that people put on because the city was involved in that."

From 1994 to 2014, the city invested just over $4 million toward building improvements. That produced another $23.4 million in private investment.

"None of these grants actually went toward the business that was in it. ... So all of this money, this $4 million, was all making sure that a hundred-year-old building stood for another hundred years," Blakeman said. "So that created the foundation for which people could actually go out and build their business, and the class A license was the means for which they were able to make the cash flow."

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If the removal of the pedestrian mall, the streetscapes and liquor licenses and outdoor seating were turning points, so was a 1987 fire that destroyed a block of Main Street between Neil and Fremont streets. Eventually, the city bought that land and turned it into a parking lot.

Years later, that parking lot became germane to a new downtown project for Jon "Cody" Sokolski.

Sokolski, who had worked most of his life as a musician, moved to Champaign in 1990 with his wife, Champaign native and now city council member Marci Dodds. He partnered to buy apartments in Champaign and owned a record store, and his "first foray" into redevelopment came with partners as the owners of Boltini, the now-closed downtown bar.

One evening, Sokolski had dinner with Mike Kulas, who "was determined, against all odds, to keep Volition, the company he founded, in Champaign-Urbana."

The video-game company, probably best known for its Saints Row series, was based at the time on Fox Drive.

"He kept losing people," Sokolski said. "They would go to some other town, because basically they were stuck out in a field. There was nothing to do, and they couldn't get so much as a newspaper, without getting in a car.

"He knew they had to be down here, but he'd struck out. Could not find a place." Sokolski had approached city planners about finding a place downtown, without success. He made another try, this time pitching keeping several dozen jobs in the tech industry in town. He got a better reception, that city officials could help with the project.

"So I was going to build a one-story office building," he said, but after meeting with city staff, a contractor and architect, "the next thing I know I'm building a five-story mixed-used building."

It was, Blakeman said, the first new construction in downtown Champaign in more than 30 years.

"We've got a surface parking lot that's just been a temporary use of that land until there was something better to go with it," Knight said. "We think we can sell a development agreement there if you wanted to build a new building there. Cody and Mike Kulas went together, Mike bringing Volition downtown. We did a development agreement in about 30 days — record fast time. We gave him a credit for every parking space he built underground against the parking we were losing from the lot. It added up to the point where he got the land free. There were absolutely no other incentives in that building. It was all done on the back of Volition."

The cornerstone was laid in 2004. The building included two restaurants, Jim Gould and KoFusion. That year, the number of outdoor seats more than doubled, from about 200 to more than 500, according to Blakeman. (Now, it's more than 1,600.)

"At the time, it was a huge linchpin" for downtown, said Mellander, who was working on a building at the intersection as well: The Metropolitan was a 100-year-old building undergoing a complete renovation into apartments and was nearly finished when an early-morning fire destroyed it in November 2008.

M2 on Neil, a second new downtown development Sokolski launched after One Main, was nearly complete when the fire happened across Main Street.

"The heat was so intense," Sokolski said, "it voided the warranty on all the materials on the south side of the building."

The repairs pushed the building's opening into the recession.

"The storm was very much on the horizon," Sokolski said. "Say this building would have come online a year before, we would have had a whole different picture. But it came online just in time for the obvious thing to be out there. And then it lost another year because of the fire, so we really came online in the worst of times."

The building is filling up. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute moved there earlier this year and space is being created on the fifth floor for Northwestern Mutual.

And Common Ground Food Co-op is planning a new store in Champaign, at the corner of Walnut and Washington streets.

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So is downtown Champaign out of the woods? What could hurt the atmosphere that has developed?

"A lot of things would have to go south for this community downtown to start failing again," Wacholtz said. "A couple things could threaten it, in my opinion. One is if too much of the property is owned by too few people. I think that is part of what helped the downfall even in the '70s.

"Fundamentally, I think this has a good foundation for long-term success," Wacholtz said. "If the city continues to be instrumental in requiring maintenance, and we develop the residential more and more, because the other leg for stability in a community is having people really invested of themselves in the neighborhood. Then it becomes a neighborhood.

"I've always loved that it's the home of the University of Illinois," said Mellander, "and along with that came this feeling of insulation from economic trends in a lot of ways because we're a university town. We've all had a little bit of unfortunate reality checks with that, with the state government and all that funding that we took for granted for a lot of years.

"So what happens in the future? My assumption is that with population growth, that our community will remain relevant, and that the population will continue to grow, and that the idea of being in a college town in a small micro-urban place instead of a major urban place will continue to have appeal."

"Livability and affordability in Champaign have gone a long way," said Sokolski. "I see the next two waves of Champaign-Urbana being a true embracing of people from overseas, and in particular the Asian influx, a genuine welcoming. And I see it happening more and more, especially with the Chinese and Korean investment in retail, apartment buildings. And the second thing is Champaign-Urbana needs to be comfortable with putting it out there that you can be artists and afford to live in Champaign-Urbana. Because artists are getting squeezed out of big cities."

Knight hopes city officials would be better equipped to deal with a downturn:

"I would hope that the lesson that we've maybe learned is, if the cycle starts to change downtown again, instead of fighting that cycle, we try and recognize what it is and start reinventing downtown to meet whatever the next need is."

Redevelopment Incentive Program by the numbers


Total grants provided by the city


Total cost of projects receiving grants


Amount of private investment

$1.4 million

Most expensive project to receive funding: Church Street Square, which received $150,000 in city funding to redevelop the former Robeson's department store into a mixed-use building. One of the first projects to be funded in the program, in fiscal 1994-95.


Smallest grant: For awning structure for Aroma Cafe, 118 N. Neil St., in fiscal 2013-14

Source: City of Champaign


Taking shape

Events in the redevelopment of downtown Champaign:

1976 — Market Place Mall opens and Neil Street pedestrian mall installed

1977 — Sears and J.C. Penney move to mall

1981 — Downtown tax increment finance district established

1985 — Multimodal Transportation Facility feasibility study completed

1986 — Neil Street mall removed

1987 — Fire destroys block of downtown

1990 — Robeson's, a local department store, closes after 116 years

1992 — City council adopts Downtown Development Plan

1992 — Church Street streetscape project completed

1994 — City Council adopts the Redevelopment Incentive Program

1996 — Phase One Streetscape Project completed

1997 — Phase 2 Streetscape Project completed

1997 — Outdoor Cafe provisions approved on an interim basis (10 p.m. closing time)

1998 — Outdoor Cafe program extended to full bar hours

1999 — Illinois Terminal (above) opens

2002 — Phase 3 Streetscape Project completed

2003 — Development agreement approved for the C-U Station project providing for the renovation of old train station

2004 — One Main is constructed and Volition moves to downtown with 80 employees

2004 — Downtown Redevelopment Incentive Program revised to create a residential incentive, new construction program and major/minor programs

2005 — Downtown TIF District termination date is extended to December 2017 with surplus payments provided to local taxing bodies for increment generated to date

2005 — City Planning Department issued permits for 15 establishments with over 500 Outdoor Cafe Seats

2006 — Downtown Plan Update is adopted by city council

2008 — M2 on Neil project is constructed and city builds first parking deck (600 Spaces); two Zip (shared) Cars added; Metropolitan Building fire destroys building at Neil and Church intersection

2008 — Downtown Housing Market Strategic Plan adopted

2009 — Downtown Champaign Parking Plan adopted

2011 — University Avenue Streetscape and Pedestrian Safety Project completed

2012 — Downtown and Midtown Storefront Improvement Program adopted by City Council

2013 — 155-room Eden Supportive Living facility opens

2014 — 145-room Hyatt Place Hotel opens on the former site of the Metropolitan Building

2014 — The Planning and Development Department issued 26 Outdoor Cafe permits totaling over 11,800 SF of public sidewalk with a capacity of 1,314 patrons

SOURCE: Bruce Knight, Champaign planning department