Listen to this article

This week's Mailbag is as jammed as a big package of Peeps on a hot summer day.

In this week's 'Bag we look to the future of: the Tuscola outlet mall, Ebertfest, the 400 block of West Church Street in Champaign, fast food in Champaign, the humane society garage sale and a vacant car wash in Savoy.

Also, do bicycles pay their way? And who has the better skyline, Paris or Champaign? Yes, that's a real question.

"One of the newscasters on Channel 3 said that in the future, 'part' of the Ebertfest will be held in Chicago. I just wondered how the activities would be divided up. Is this because those running Ebertfest are trying to slip past in a full move to Chicago before we even realize it>"

"There are no plans to move part of Ebertfest," said Andy Hall, who is spokesman and assistant director for the just-concluded film festival. "We have scheduled the dates of the festival for next year and look forward to many more years in Champaign."

The News-Gazette's Frank Pieper, who covered the event last weekend, reported that Ebertfest co-founder and producer Chaz Ebert said, "I've heard some rumors going around town, and on TV, and in print. And I just want to tell you, I want you to join me back here next year, April 15th through 18th, for Ebertfest!"

"Chaz never specified what rumors she was referring to," said Pieper, "and I didn't get the chance to ask her afterward ... "

He said he didn't hear any rumors during the festival's run.

"The show must go on, and apparently it will do so here," Pieper said.

"Fencing has been put up around the pillared building that used to be the United Way on Church Street in Champaign. Please tell me they're not tearing it down."

The former home of the United Way, at 404 W. Church St., is being town down.

Permits to demolish it and 402 W. Church St. have been filed with the city of Champaign by Prime Housing LLC, whose manager is Chris Saunders.

Saunders purchased the United Way property last year and said at the time that he intended to redevelop it and the adjoining properties at 402 and 408 W. Church St.

"The project currently consists of 51 apartments across two three-story buildings, with three studios, 39 one-bedrooms and nine two-bedrooms. I currently have them being developed as apartments, but am considering also making them condos so they might be able to be sold in the future," he said.

Saunders said he hopes to complete the demolition "in the coming months and will start construction this summer."

"Find out which stores are closing at the Tuscola Outlet Shops this year. The mall owners want to put a hotel where the mall is instead. If true, a hotel for what?"

Last December, News-Gazette reporter Ben Zigterman counted 30 stores at the mall. There are 27 now. Among the losses: Reebok, Nike and J Crew. Another store, The Sports Den, is having a closing sale.

The outlet mall is no different than the rest of the nation's wobbly and evolving retail sector.

But as for a hotel on the property? Nope.

"We are not looking to put a hotel on the site," said Elliot S. Nassim, president of Mason Asset Management, the New York firm that bought the outlet mall in December 2017. Mason owns about 100 malls across the country, according to Reuters.

Tuscola City Administrator J. Drew Hoel also was skeptical of the hotel idea.

"We have not heard anything to that effect, and I seriously doubt that it would even be feasible to repurpose the existing structures in that manner," Hoel said. "The new owners intend to continue to operate the mall in the same fashion as always."

"With the bridge over Bradley being rebuilt, I got to thinking of others that need it, perhaps even more. The bridge on Mattis Avenue over I-57 in north Champaign is in horrible shape. When is that slated to get work?"

Here's good news from our friend Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"The bridge replacement at Mattis Avenue over I-57 northwest of Champaign is part of the I-57/I-74 interchange project. The structure replacement is scheduled to be on a letting later this year and programmed at $18,875,000," he said.

In response to several queries in recent months, Mary Tiefenbrunn, the executive director of the Champaign County Humane Society, reported that the group's 35th annual Giant Garage Sale would be held at the former Rogards building, 214 S. Walnut St., C — where the Bonyard Arts Festival recently set up a gallery for its showcase (above).

Sale dates are:

Friday, May 24, 6-9 p.m. — The $5 admission charge is good for Saturday too

Saturday, May 25, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — $3 admission cage until 3 p.m.

Sunday, May 26, 9 a.m. to noon — $3 bag sale (everything you can fit in a bag for $3)

— free giveaway of remains ($1 admission) from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

Drop-off dates are Thursday and Friday, May 16-17, from noon to 6 p.m., and Saturday, May 18, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

"When they sold the Cheddar's site they said they were going to build a new one at a different location. What happened to that? It was my favorite restaurant."

I could find no reference to a promise by Cheddar's to open another restaurant in Champaign. When Cheddar's closed its Champaign shop at 2101 N. Prospect Ave. in 2011, it was replaced with another Darden Restaurants offering, LongHorn Steakhouse.

Here's what Cheddar's says today: "While we don't have any plans that are set in stone for this area, we are always looking to expand. It's a huge compliment that our fans are asking for us to return to their neighborhood. I will make sure this suggestion for a new location in the Champaign-Urbana area is shared with those responsible for site selection."

"Are these commercial 'rent a bike' or bikers on bike lanes, paying taxes and/or fees to utilize the roads that the licensed motorists pay road taxes on? If not, they need to, since they now have taken away part of the roads for designated bike lanes."

Here's your answer from Urbana Alderman Bill Brown, an avid cyclist who also is a member of the Urbana Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission:

"I often hear similar concerns, so I appreciate the opportunity to respond to this, especially as we approach bike month and Bike to Work Day on May 1st. (shameless plug:

"First of all, gas taxes do not cover the cost of roads. When you include funding from capital bills, stimulus funding, economic development and other grants plus supplemental spending from general revenue by all levels of government, several studies have shown that gas taxes cover less than half the cost of annual road spending. So we all pay for roads whether we buy gas or not, and lightweight bicycles (even with heavyweight riders) cause virtually no wear and tear on roads.

"In fact, people who ride bikes are often licensed motorists who own cars or use Uber or buses that pay taxes, order goods that are delivered, and buy stuff, all of which has built-in transportation costs. Your reader might be interested in reading 'Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy' by Elly Blue. She explains how bicycle transportation builds communities, supports local business, and can be a savior for personal finance. People riding bikes are more likely to make multiple stops on a trip, shopping at storefronts rather than big boxes. And biking takes fuel too — just ask the folks at Sidney Dairy Barn or the Wheelhouse in St. Joseph.

"Including bike infrastructure like bike lanes on our roads is a cost effective way of providing inexpensive transportation options to more people. A two-car family that can get by on one car or reduce in-town mileage can save up to $5,000 per year. Young workers can save for a house or go out more, older workers can save more for retirement, and low-wage workers can pay the rent. Biking and walking provides regular exercise, decreasing chronic disease and helping to keep health costs low for everyone.

"Bike lanes and recreational paths have also been credited with increasing property values in nearby neighborhoods. The more people use our roads for cycling, people driving cars get used to seeing us and the safer we will all be."

"Are they ever going to put the 'entertainment,' as in the Bands and Fans, or Nightlife, back in the 'On the Go' entertainment guide? Not everyone has access to the internet, so therefore they miss a lot. Summer is near. I sure wouldn't want to miss bands and activities around town."

Here's your response from Mike Goebel, The News-Gazette's managing editor: "We're constantly evaluating all of the content that we include in The News-Gazette and at to make sure what we're offering appeals to the greatest section of our readership.

"We moved our 'Nightlife' listings to online-only almost two years ago and we don't anticipate moving it back into the paper. We consider to be an extension of the newspaper itself because your print subscription also gives you unlimited access to read the stories, view photos and watch videos at our website.

"Thanks for reading."

"Is Champaign's skyline bigger than Paris'? I saw photos of the fire and noticed there are no tall buildings. I thought it was a big city."

Champaign has a nice skyline but it's no match for Paris'.

The tallest building in the French capital is the Eiffel Tower, which is 1,062 feet high or nearly the height of the former John Hancock Building in Chicago, 1,127 feet tall.

Most of the other Paris skyscrapers are in a district outside the city, away from the old landmarks such as the 226-foot-tall Notre Dame and the 164-foot Arc de Triomphe. But the city does have the Tour Montparnasse building, at 689 feet.

The regional Paris skyline includes inner western suburbs with several buildings more than 500 feet tall.

The tallest building in Champaign is 309 Green at 268 feet.

"Could you tell me why the Big R car wash sign is still on Burwash Avenue in Savoy, even though the car wash is long gone?"

"Village staff have been working with the owners to get something done with that sign," said Dick Helton, who is Savoy's village manager. "We'll be following up this week to get a feel for the status and pushing to get it removed."

"I wonder which city department regulates the noise that trains make, specifically at the crossing near Bradley and Market streets in Champaign? This crossing has flashing lights and crossing bars. Why do train conductors have to blast the train horns so long and frequently, especially after midnight?"

It's been a few years since we addressed this question.

The city does not regulate the noise from trains. It's essentially a federal issue with the Federal Railroad Administration setting the rules for train horns.

Here's part of that regulation:

"Under the Train Horn Rule, locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.

"If a train is traveling faster than 60 mph, engineers will not sound the horn until it is within one-fourth mile of the crossing, even if the advance warning is less than 15 seconds.

"There is a 'good faith' exception for locations where engineers can't precisely estimate their arrival at a crossing and begin to sound the horn no more than 25 seconds before arriving at the crossing.

"Train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. The rule does not stipulate the durations of long and short blasts."

It's worth noting that the railroad was here long before Champaign was developed, even before Champaign was incorporated as a town.

"What happened to the restaurant South China? I read about it failing a couple of inspections last spring in The News-Gazette, and it seems that the restaurant is permanently closed. Any details?"

It's actually closed twice in the last year under two different owners, first in October 2018 and again in March 2019. There's no sign on the door at 25 E. Springfield Ave., Champaign, and the phone has been disconnected.

"Is there a way to find out how much it costs to park at the Illini Terminal without going to the terminal itself?"

There is limited (72 spaces) short-term parking at the front (west side) of the Illinois Terminal. The city of Champaign operates the lot. Parking is 75 cents an hour with free parking on Saturdays, Sundays and city holidays. Parking on the east side of the railroad tracks is free provided that users fill out a form at either the MTD or Amtrak counters at the Illinois Terminal.

"With the spring yard waste collection starting, what does C-U do with all that waste?"

It all gets recycled.

Champaign's yard waste is sent to a local farm where it is used for livestock bedding and fertilizer. Urbana's goes to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 E. University Ave., Urbana, which if you haven't seen it is quite an interesting operation.

— "Not a question, but rather an addition to your answer (last week) about businesses at the southwest corner of Fourth and Green. The building formerly at 313 E. Green St., the College Corner Mall, housed many of the biz you listed (but not Bagelmen's, which was on the southeast corner) but one biz you didn't list was the bar O'Malleys in the basement. Many renditions of 'American Pie' belted out at the stroke of midnight there. Oh to be 20 again."

— "Thought you might be interested to know that we already have Trader Joe's parent company locally, namely Aldi. I was amazed to learn that they own Trader Joe's. See this fascinating article in The Guardian ...

— "This isn't a question but a response. I apologize for taking up your time with the Huntington Tower/April Fool article question. Since I am not clever enough to dream something like that then I apparently had the wrong paper. Perhaps it was in the Courier or maybe the Daily Illini. If I am ever able to find it I will let you know."

I looked through some old Daily Illinis and found several April Fool's editions, including one in 1966 when both Roger Ebert and Bob Auler, now both deceased, were columnists at the student newspaper. But I never found one with a photo of the Huntington Towers, originally opened in 1973 as Champaign Towers. Incidentally, the humor in that 1966 April Fool's newspaper did not age well.


Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).