Business at Mailbag Headquarters is almost as busy as a Champaign-Urbana restaurant on this year's University of Illinois Commencement/Mother's Day weekend.
We have questions about what's going on in a downtown Urbana landmark, inferior infrastructure in parts of Champaign, an objectionable license plate, confusing highway signs, an artwork in southern Champaign County, whether Congressman Rodney Davis will do office hours in the county, the lots around the Sunnycrest Center, Illinois legislation, an aerial photograph of downtown Champaign and some restaurant news.
"There is a sculpture on County Road 200 N (known to some locals as St. Mary's Road) just east of Pesotum. It is out in front of what looks like someone's home just across the road and a little farther west of St. Mary's Catholic Church. The sculpture looks to be made of sticks and shows a humanesque figure looking up into the sky. I've always wondered what meaning this depiction holds but have never known who to ask."
The sculpture is of reinforcing steel and is informally called "Ironman." It was done about 20 years ago by Todd Frahm when he was still in college, said his father, Eric Frahm.
"The actual title of it is 'Searching for Eleanor.' That was his grandmother's name, so it is looking up at the heavens," Eric Frahm said.
Todd Frahm, now lives in Asheville, N.C., where he has a studio. Todd did the piece after his grandmother died.
"It's in memory of her, and I just inherited it," Eric Frahm said. "And yes, I get a lot of questions about it from people driving by."
Todd Frahm has a number of public pieces in Urbana, including the gargoyles added to the clocktower at the Champaign County Courthouse, a stone bear at the The Pines shopping area at Windsor and Philo roads, the large stone rabbit in Meadowbrook Park and the rabbit with books at the Urbana Free Library.
"Any idea on when/if the YMCA is going to expand? It seems more and more crowded every time I go."
Jeff Scott, the CEO of the Stephens Family YMCA, replied: "As an organization, we are looking closely at the possibility of expansion.
There are many things to consider at this point in time, but we are definitely working to develop a strong plan that will address the crowding issues at our current location.
"We are also looking at ways to serve other parts of our community through new programs, facilities and possible partnerships. It is a very exciting time at the YMCA, and we should have a very clear and tangible direction in the next 90-180 days."
Old Urbana law office
"I believe that there is a law office on the northeast corner of Main and Race in downtown Urbana, but the windows are all boarded up. What's going on with that space?"
That's the former Phebus Tummelson Bryan and Knox law office, although it's been about three years since there was a law firm there.
Historically it is the Cohen Building, which was designed by noted local architect Joseph W. Royer for prominent Urbana businessman and cigar manufacturer Nathan (Nat) H. Cohen and built in 1907, according to Brandon Boys, who is Urbana's economic development manager. At one time, it was home of the Urbana Banking Company, which went under during the Great Depression.
"Dan Maloney has been the owner of the Cohen Building since July 2016. Dan is in the process of renovating the building, including preparing for a new Japanese restaurant tenant on a portion of the first floor," Boys said.
Maloney's web page — https://136mainstreet.com/ — says the building is available for long-term leasing and for short-term, event possibilities.
"The city has issued permits and work is under way for a $286,544 renovation of the Cohen Building to sprinkle the entire building, replace the elevator and extend it to the basement, add common bathrooms on the ground floor and create three commercial tenant spaces along Main Street," Boys said. "Plans are also under review for the buildout of the Japanese restaurant in the eastern portion of the building."
The renovation project is being supported by the city through a January 2017 redevelopment agreement. In that deal, the city agreed to offer a maximum of $500,000 in tax increment financing toward the $2.5 million project.
"Why are Green Street and the surrounding streets not paved or have sidewalks from Mattis Avenue east to Russell (in Champaign)?"
Areas like this are a common problem for many municipalities that annex older neighborhoods that were developed with substandard infrastructure.
It happened in this neighborhood during the postwar housing boom of the 1940s and '50s, said T.J. Blakeman, a senior planner for the city of Champaign who also is president of the board of the Champaign County History Museum.
Before the war, Blakeman said, Russell Street was the city's western boundary, except for the area north of Springfield Avenue. Because that section was served by a street car line it was developed much earlier than the area south of Springfield.
"This led to substandard infrastructure across large areas of town that developed outside of the city's regulations," said Blakeman. "Garden Hills seems to be a little different. That area began platting in 1955 and was annexed as it was platted between 1955 and 1958. However, you can see by these dates that a lot was changing at one time here in the city. By the time 1960 rolled around, Mattis Avenue was the new western limit of town, and by 1967, much of the city touched Duncan Road."
In some cases, this problem has been resolved in Illinois by giving cities extraterritorial jurisdiction for areas within 11 / 2 miles of their boundary. Within these areas, developments are required to conform to city standards, even if they aren't in the city.
Old downtown Champaign photo
"I've seen this old aerial photo of downtown Champaign at a few local establishments. Any idea when it was taken?"
There are a couple good clues in there, the best being the inclusion of the old Champaign City Hall and the Illinois Central Railroad station and tracks. That narrows it down to the period between August 1924 — when the project that raised the tracks above grade level and built the new depot was completed — and 1935, when voters approved construction of a new city building.
My guess is that it was taken in 1924 by photographer Bernard Strauch, who has a collection of similar downtown aerials at the University of Illinois Library archives. The Illinois Central station and the surrounding infrastructure — viaducts, sidewalks, stairways and canopies — look brand new.
"Any chance that U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis will hold open office hours anytime soon in Champaign-Urbana?"
Here's what Rep. Davis' spokesperson, Ashley Phelps, had to say about your inquiry:
"As usual, Congressman Davis plans to hold public events in every county. So far this year, he's held open office hours in Montgomery, Jersey, Macoupin and Bond counties, which are free and open events to the public and constituents can talk about any issue they want," she said. "Constituents can visit our website to find upcoming events, and as always, they are welcome to request an individual meeting at any time."
In a followup email, Phelps said there are plans for Davis to have open office hours in Champaign County this year.
She included this link to Davis' website: https://rodneydavis.house.gov/constituent-services/upcoming-events.htm.
"Who owns the parking lot at Sunnycrest mall? It is in horrible shape and full of gigantic potholes. Are there plans to fix/repave the lot?"
It's complicated, said attorney Kent Follmer, who is the trustee for the Clive Follmer Trust, which the owns the Sunnycrest Center.
There are several owners of the properties in the area generally thought of as Sunnycrest. The Clive Follmer Trust owns the property from the Sunnycrest Center to Florida AVenue. Follmer said he has contracted with a company to make repairs to the pavement in that area.
But the worst sections are south of the Sunnycrest Center and have at least three other owners. Follmer said he would send emails to those owners, asking for their plans to make repairs.
Illinois taxes and fees
"I have been keeping up with the state of Illinois budget news and proposed new taxes, and I have two questions. First, what exactly is a tax on financial transactions? Second, for those of us who consistently recycle plastic bags, will we be reimbursed? If so, how would reimbursement be handled?"
The financial transactions tax, which has been introduced before in the Legislature and went nowhere, would impose a $1 per transactions tax on transactions at the Chicago Stock Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Board Options Exchange or Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The legislation, HB 23, is stuck in the House Rules Committee, which is usually the kiss of death.
As for the plastic bag tax, if legislation comes up for a full vote, the details are still being worked out. The House version is in the Rules Committee. The Senate version was reassigned to a committee last week after being passed by another committee. That 13-page bill (SB 1240) calls for a 7-cent tax on all single-use bags, whether they're made of plastic, paper, cloth or any other material. There is no provision in the legislation for any kind of a reimbursement. If you reuse a plastic bag at a checkout — or if you bring your own cloth or paper bag from home — you're not assessed the 7-cent fee at the checkout.
"I see a new sign for Golden Crab in the old HuHot location. Do you have any details about it?"
Only that a building permit application is under review by the city for 902 Meijer Drive, Suite 4. The tenant is listed as Golden Crab, Inc. Its agent is Wei Min Qiu of Champaign.
Offensive license plate
"Has the secretary of state relaxed vanity license plate restrictions? I recently saw a black Ford Focus with an Illinois license plate "SND NUDZ" and a "Lyft" sticker on it. I was shocked that this slipped past the SOS."
Henry Haupt, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White, said the license plate is being revoked.
"We are revoking this license plate. To answer the constituent's question, we have not relaxed our vanity plate restrictions," he said. "As you might imagine, Illinoisans request thousands of vanity and personalized license plate letters and combinations, and we do our very best to ensure when a plate is issued it does not contain an offensive combination of letters or numbers. We will continue to remain vigilant in this endeavor."
Confused by sign
"This might be a good one for Mr. Garnett. When traveling west on Curtis Road in Champaign toward the I-57 interchange, the green signs direct me for I-57 northbound to 'Champaign.' Why would I want to go to Champaign when I'm already in Champaign? Who decides the next big city that is shown on the sign? Shouldn't it say something like Kankakee or Chicago? I do know this has thoroughly confused more than one out-of-town person."
You have a point, said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. And new highway signs are on order.
"We are in agreement that this can be confusing and have actually noticed the same issue at other interchanges along I-57 that are within the Champaign area," he said. "Without researching annexation records, we believe that the signs may have been installed at times when each of these interchanges were not technically within the city of Champaign limits. If that were the case, then the sign designs would have complied with guidelines in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.
"Regardless, all of the interstate guide signs in Champaign County have been work ordered to be replaced this year, and the issue will be corrected. The contractor has cited some difficulty with material acquisition but we anticipate the new signs to be installed this summer."
"I recently noticed that when you check something out at the Urbana library, your receipt tells you how much you have 'saved' this year (presumably basing this number on the new purchase price of your checked out items). It's a fun little feature. I'd be curious to know how much money the busiest library user 'saved' last year and what the average user 'saves' in a year if they track that."
Celeste Choate, the executive director of the Urbana Free Library, said they don't track that information.
"The Urbana Free Library and the Champaign Public Library are members of the Illinois Heartland Library System (IHLS), which has over 520 member libraries in central and southern Illinois. Most of these libraries participate in the SHAREd catalog system, called Polaris. TUFL and CPL share a Polaris catalog together.
"On the SHARE webpage, there is information on the You Saved function of Polaris.
Some libraries show this information on their receipts as one fun way to demonstrate the value that libraries provide. When TUFL learned about this option, we contacted the Champaign Public Library to see if they were interested in activating this option. They were, so now both TUFL and CPL display this information on our receipts like other IHLS libraries.
"It is not tracked for the libraries, so we cannot say who saves how much. I encourage everyone to check their receipt, and have a little fun with it."