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This week's Mailbag is more crowded than the egress at a meeting of Jussie Smollett supporters.

There's a lot about local history and a lot of local infrastructure, plus a look at a proposed tax on plastic bags, rental vacancy rates in C-U, the site for the big humane society garage sale and online court records in Vermilion County.

We have an appeal for townies to check family mementos for a copy of a motion picture produced in Champaign-Urbana in 1923, a question about the architecture of a business block in Urbana and a query about the brickwork at the UI Graduate Library.

Also, an erosion problem along Kirby Avenue, the reconstruction of South Prospect Avenue this summer, trees lost and planted as part of the MCORE project, the West Side Park playground, dirt being moved in Urbana and a new old doughnut shop in Champaign.

"The new state budget calls for a 5-cents-a-bag tax on plastic bags. Does any other state have a plastic-bag tax?"

You think it's bad in Illinois? The governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, called for a 10-cent surcharge on plastic bags in his budget address on Wednesday — plus a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, taxes on e-cigarette liquids and new deposits on wine and liquor bottles.

And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California and Hawaii have bans on plastic bags and the District of Columbia has a fee on their use.

Many states have programs that encourage consumers to recycle plastic bags. Some require stores that supply plastic bags to have a convenient receptacle for their collection and recycling.

A number of cites and counties have either plastic-bag prohibitions or fees. In Chicago, for example, there is a 7-cent tax on plastic bags.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's proposed 5-cent tax would raise an estimated $20 million.

"While attending the Champaign County History Museum's History on The Town event that The News-Gazette very graciously hosted Wednesday, I remembered that I had run across old stories of a local film made in 1923. "The City Beyond" was produced by the Champaign News-Gazette, starred local talent, and was filmed at Chanute, the country club, and outside the Virginia Theatre, among other locations. It premiered at the Virginia on July 23, 1923. Nobody seems to know of any existing prints. I wonder if you might be able to help track down a print of the film, photos, scripts or other ephemera folks may have in a closet, attic or basement. Maybe there are family stories of relatives attending or helping to make the picture. Thanks!"

A 1936 thesis by Natalia Belting, a journalism student at the University of Illinois, described the motion picture:

"In the summer of 1923, The News-Gazette produced, through the Siple Studios of Chicago, a motion picture of the Twin Cities entitled 'The City Beyond.' Virginia Adair, the heroine played by Ruth Honn, was an actress with a moving picture company that was shooting scenes in a strange city (Champaign). Jack, played by Frank Robeson, was a practical young man famed for building great things and the friend of the director. He was introduced to Virginia, and from that day on (he) haunted the lots as her protector. The script called for the leading lady to go up in an airplane — something went wrong and the plane nosed down with a terrific roar. What the ending was will have to be left for conjecture, for naturally, the reviews of the picture did not give the story away."

"I am curious about the building that houses The Bread Company Restaurant in Urbana at 706 S. Goodwin Ave. What was the building originally intended for and when was it built?"

Built in 1928, the buildings that wrap around the corner of Oregon Street and Goodwin Avenue originally were Prehn's drug store and soda fountain. The development also included space for four smaller businesses that at the time of the grand opening on Sept. 16, 1928, included a beauty shop, barber shop, candy store and a cleaning and pressing shop.

The complex was built and operated by Iowa-born Paul Prehn, who was a wrestling and boxing coach at the University of Illinois and also ran a luncheonette-confectionary on Green Street.

A story in the Urbana Courier said that Prehn spent $85,000 on the development.

"Paul has put up a building whose exterior is pleasing, but whose interior is a dreamland, under the soft southern skies of old Granada, in faraway Spain," the Courier story gushed.

In a full-page ad promoting the opening of Prehn's, the owner boasted that it was "the most complete building of Spanish architecture in the Middle West."

But neither the ad nor accompanying stories about the building explained why Prehn chose a Spanish architectural style amid the traditional Georgian architecture of the UI or the typical Midwestern home styles in west Urbana. This was the period, though, when Moorish architecture was used in the construction of numerous grand mo

vie houses throughout the country, including several in Chicago: the Aragon, Avalon and Marbro theaters.

The Courier stories said that Prehn's was "a roomy beautiful indoor place with many hidden windows, fountains and a softly lighted atmosphere.

"Stroll through the garden and you will see a line of booths, there are 24 of them, on either side. In the center you will see canopy-covered tables, 22 in number, all finished in a color scheme which is predominantly red. The floor is heavy red tile, practically soundproof."

"Can you try to get some real answers why the Vermilion County Circuit Clerk's Office has not moved for months to get court case records back online? All they say is they're working on it, for months now."

Circuit Clerk Denny Gardner said the system has been back online since Feb. 4.

"Thanks for the question. First off, it hasn't been months. It was approximately 3 to 4 weeks," he said. "We changed vendors for our case-management system, and we quit putting information into our old system on Dec. 28, 2018. After the first of the year, our old vendor pulled their information off of the internet. Our new vendor had the information back on the first week of February.

"Also, contrary to popular belief and conspiracy theories, no laws were violated and there were no transparency issues. All of our files that have not been sealed by the court are available for review any time in our office. Last but not least, there are no laws or statutes that require any circuit clerk in the state of Illinois to put that information on the internet; that is a courtesy that we feel is important to the public."

It is possible that your access to the circuit clerk's website may be blocked by the firewall of your browser. That was the case at The News-Gazette when I tried to reach the site. But I could get to it by way of my cellphone.

Here's a link to the site.

"When will the fencing around the playground at West Side Park come down? I thought the new playground was supposed to be open last fall?"

Bridgette Moen, a park planner for the Champaign Park District, reports that the playground equipment is finished and open to the public.

"The snow fence adjacent to the playground is to keep visitors off of what will soon be grass. The contractor will be installing sod this spring and the snow fence will be taken down as soon as the turf is established," she said.

"With the opening of a plasma center in old County Market building (on Kirby Avenue), any word on where the humane society garage sale will be held this year?"

"No, we have not secured a site yet, and we are actively looking," said Mary Tiefenbrunn, executive director of the Champaign County Humane Society. "If anyone out there has a building with 16,000 square feet of space, parking and easy access for drop-offs — that's available from about May 12 to May 29 — I'd love to hear from them."

"The Main Library on campus has obviously been renovated and expanded a few times. The original building is beautiful and red brick. Then there was an expansion at some point with a yellow brick and another expansion back to red brick. Can you look into what happened there? Was there a period in time where aesthetics weren't considered when doing projects? Or was the budget so tight when the expansion was happening that they could only afford yellow bricks? I just can't imagine a decision like that getting though the layers of administration at the university. And is that why there is now an Architectural Review Board?"

William Maher, the University of Illinois Archivist, did a lot of research to attempt to answer your question.

"We have done some investigation and found some information about the specification for the brick in 1927, and we have found, via photographic records, that the same basic color of the brick was used from 1927 to the late 1950s for north and south walls of the bookstacks," he said.

"The bid instructions for the second addition to the bookstacks, with a submission deadline of Aug. 16, 1927, specified on page 32 the use of 'light-colored face bricks' from Huntingburg Pressed Brick Co. of Huntingburg, Ind., and termed these 'smooth cream face brick #220.' The specification mentions this was noted in correspondence between the 'Supervising Architect and Huntingburg.' Page 38 references the light-colored brick again when talking about the north and south walls of the bookstacks.

"Unfortunately, none of this provides a clue as to the reason. I am unfamilar with the cost of building materials, but I would not assume that light-colored brick would be cheaper than red.

"Instead, based on the original plan for additions to the Library, my best guess as the reason for the light color is that it was intended to provide greater reflection of light into the courtyards that would be formed by the originally planned 'wrapping' non-stacks part of the building around the stacks.

"We can see the effect of this in the smaller light court that is visible through some of the interior windows in the University Archives' Room 146 location. I have also seen similar instances of light-colored brick having been used in other 20th-century buildings in Chicago and elsewhere.

"I hope this answers your question, although I do wish we could find a written verification that light reflection was the reason."

"I see a lot of trees on Wright south of Green are marked for removal. Is that related to MCORE? Some of the trees, especially the large ones around Gregory Hall, look like they are set back a good 15 feet from the road, so the need for their removal is surprising."

More than 100 trees are being removed in Phase 4 of the Multimodal Corridor Enhancement Project through the center of the University of Illinois campus and Champaign-Urbana, said Kris Koester of the Champaign Public Works Department.

"As part of the MCORE Project planning, trees were identified that needed to be removed that were either in poor health, in bad soil conditions, the cause of potential mobility hazards (Sweetgum tree pods is one example), or to make room for infrastructure improvement," Koester said. "While the number has changed slightly from when we announced it in 2015, the overall project calls for removal of 103 trees and replanting of 167 trees (or 1.6 trees per tree removed)."

Phase 4 calls for the removal of 20 trees and the addition of 60.

Phase 4 includes work along the east end of Armory Street, and Wright Street from Armory to Wright Street. It includes wider sidewalks, a bus-loading platform in front of Gregory Hall, improved bike lanes and replacement of water mains — work that will require the removal of trees.

A PDF of an overhead illustration of the work along Armory can be found here. And a PDF of an overhead illustration of the work along Wright can be found here.

"Work on South Prospect between Windsor and Curtis is scheduled to start in March. An article in The News-Gazette on Dec. 20, 2018, provided general information related to the project; however, I have not been able to locate more specific plans. With the project set to start next month, is it possible to get more details on the improvements and timeline? Does the city have any visuals they'd be willing to share to get a better sense of how that stretch of road will look when construction is complete?"

Construction is estimated to start in March and be completed in November, Koester said.

The project will be done on a phased approach, meaning "that in the interest of time, the contractor will be allowed to completely shut down portions of Prospect Avenue to through traffic. A complete route from Windsor Road to Curtis Road will not be maintained throughout the duration of construction. Instead, a detailed traffic-control plan has been developed which will allow the contractor full access to portions of the roadway while maintaining access to certain side streets by which residents can gain entry to their neighborhoods."

Planned improvements include upgrading the corridor to arterial street standards with three lanes of pavement, curb and gutter, storm sewers, street lighting, on-street bike lanes, and improvements to the adjacent sidewalk and multi-use path. The project is located both within Champaign and Savoy.

"Some considerable erosion is occurring in the bank of the Copper Slough immediately where Kirby Avenue crosses the slough. The erosion is occurring due to a corroded tile which is supposedly emptying into the slough but is eating away at the bank. If the erosion continues it may eventually undermine Kirby Avenue's roadbed right at its bridge over the slough. Is anyone noticing?"

That section of Kirby was transferred from the jurisdiction of Champaign Township to the city of Champaign in early 2017, Koester said.

"Public Works environmental engineering staff are aware of the erosion and have been monitoring. Initial inspection appears it may be coming from a private field drainage tile. Staff will continue to monitor this area until a repair can be made to prevent future erosion," he said.

"What is the occupancy rate of the existing rental housing (university and apartment buildings) in Champaign and Urbana? It seems like all the new construction is clearly excessive to the needs of the communities."

This is an ongoing question to the Mailbag, and the answer is the same. Yes, there is a surplus of housing, and yes, developers keep adding more.

The most recent government numbers are from the Census Bureau's 2017 American Community Survey. They show that the rental vacancy rate in the Champaign-Urbana metro area was 12.83 percent. The state rate was 7 percent and the national rate was 6.18 percent.

Another study, done in early 2017 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, put the percentage at 10 — but that was in a broader market including all of Champaign, Ford and Piatt counties.

"On my way to work this morning, I noticed that there's a sign up for Ye Olde Donut Shoppe in the storefront on the north end of Stadium Plaza on Neil Street. Does this mean that Ye Olde will have their own retail outlet once again?"

Construction delays have pushed back the opening of the new shop to late March, said a worker at the shop. Ye Olde Donut for many years operated at the northwest corner of Green and First in Champaign.

"Any idea if something is being built on Windsor near Susan Stone Drive in Urbana, next to the Calvary Baptist Church? It looks like it's been staked off with some new soil added, and they've had some heavy machinery out there too."

Kate Klipp of The Atkins Group said the property belongs to her company.

"We are currently accepting fill material to build up the lots along Windsor. Currently, there are no development plans for the area, and we are just leveling the land," she said.

"I see that American Football is releasing their third album next month and is going on tour this year to support/promote the record. Their website displays a show date up in Chicago but nothing closer than that. Any chance they'll do a show in the area this year, given that they're originally from Urbana and they're signed with Champaign's Polyvinyl record label? I've never seen them live but would love to."

There are no shows in town on the horizon, said Chris Vinyard, a spokesman for the band. If you want to see American Football play in Illinois this year, it's best you get to the Chicago show, Vinyard said.


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).