Submit your questions to Tom's Mailbag
Another heavy load of mail this week — 16 questions answered for the second week in a row — including questions about the Milo's replacement, Champaign's big downtown development project, refunds for members of the Spark Museum, the innovative Lodgic workplace center in south Champaign and the warehouse the Champaign school district purchased this week.
Also, replacing curbside mailboxes felled by snowplows, safer playgrounds, redevelopment ideas for Lincoln Square, a shared space in Meadowbrook Park, an addition to Baytowne, a closed convenience store in Urbana and two of Illinois' most popular politicians.
Lodgic Everyday Community
"I was wondering what is happening at the building and parking lot that used to be Good Vibes at the southwest corner of Neil Street and Fox Drive."
What is happening there is a fascinating development of an entirely new kind of workplace.
The Lodgic Everyday Community, scheduled to open around July 4 in the Illini Plaza at 1807 S. Neil St., will be a first-in-the-nation work area for individuals, startups, small businesses, remote office workers and freelancers, said Stefanie McLeese, director of public relations for Lodgic Everyday Community.
What makes all of this even more fascinating is that Lodgic is a program created by Moose International, a 130-year-old fraternal organization that promotes families and community. The idea is to support Mooseheart, its longtime child care facility in west suburban Chicago, and a sense of community in places around the country.
Scott Hart, the chief executive officer of Moose International, called Lodgic "a completely new kind of place that will offer modern professionals and families the flexibility and support in three areas they value most. Maximized productivity, high-quality time together as a family, and a genuine sense of community are at the core of Lodgic."
"They chose Champaign-Urbana as the flagship location," McLeese said. "They started with a national search several years ago and kept putting filters on and every time they did Champaign-Urbana came right to the top.
"Part of it has to do with the brand that Champaign-Urbana has built regarding innovation. This concept is designed to cater to and support entrepreneurs and small business owners. When you look at what we have — the Small Business Development Center, the EDC, the research park, the university — it was just a fit."
McLeese said millennials often will choose a place to live first "and then figure out what they'll do for work. People are choosing Champaign-Urbana. There's innovation here, a strong, smart dynamic workforce that seeks urban amenities but in our community."
Lodgic will offer not only 24-hour work spaces of various sizes with high-speed internet, but also drop-in childcare (probably around 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., McLeese said) and a full-service food service and bar, run by Lodgic's own executive chef.
"The things that people care most about are their careers, their families and healthy food and drink," McLeese said. "When you put all of those things under one roof and create not just a physical space but a place for people to have community and thrive and nourish their dreams and aspirations in ways they never thought possible, you've got something pretty magical."
Payment is by a sort of dues payment, she said, by hourly rates, daily rates or longer-term arrangements. Pricing and packaging hasn't been completed yet, although child care will be about $9 per hour per child.
Both the child care and food service will be open to everyone.
"You can go on a date night and bring the kids with you, then drop the kids off and have a nice dinner or go to a movie if you want," she said.
McLeese said Lodgic did focus groups locally last fall "and working women had tears in their eyes going, 'This is going to change my life. I'm going to be able to explore career options and opportunities that I haven't been able to do before, specifically because of the flexibility of the drop-in child care.'"
Lodgic will hold pre-opening tours of the facility later this spring, she said.
"Has there been an announcement what the new Mexican restaurant will be in the old Milo's location?"
No announcement yet, but Mark Dixon of the Atkins Group said the restaurant is aiming for an early May opening.
It will be called Casa Del Mar, a reference to the pond behind the restaurant. It is owned and operated by a family that operates Mexican restaurants in Hoopeston, Mattoon and Arcola.
Downtown Champaign project
"Looking at the design for the proposed downtown (Champaign) ice arena — how many buildings would be coming down for the structure and parking? Surprised that's the choice rather than cluster it with the football/basketball/golf/baseball/softball setups on the south end of campus."
Hans Grotelueschen, the private developer behind the multi-use project that would be paired with the proposed expansion of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's Illinois Terminal, responds:
"Simple enough question ... more difficult to answer. Some of the structures are interconnected and it's hard to say where one building stops and another begins."Our current plan calls for the demolition of the Goodyear/Claudin Welding block, the Rogards block, the Christie Clinic parking lot, and all the former Marco Steel recycling site. Depending on how you count them, this is between five-10 buildings."
As for your point about the location of the indoor sports arena that could be the home of a University of Illinois hockey team, Grotelueschen said, "In conjunction with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics at the U of I, we are building the premier multi-sport athletic facility in the Midwest. Not only will the facility be the performance and training home to multiple athletic teams for the university, but also will serve as a youth sports facility throughout the year.
"Kids and teams of all ages will use the facility for tournaments and competitions for hockey, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, gymnastics and dance. All the participants, their families, and their fans will have numerous hotel and dining options within walking distance of the event center. Not to mention, the event center is next door to the train station and main bus terminal for Champaign-Urbana. The site is
perfectly situated to maximize the use of existing public transportation throughout our community.
"One last thing ... let's don't forget the proximity to the student population. The downtown site is much closer to the student population than any site on the south end of campus. No one lives on the south end of campus."
Spark museum refunds
"Urbana's Spark Museum + Play Cafe closed suddenly last week. Will families who held annual memberships receive any sort of refund? I have heard of families who had purchased memberships just a week or two before their closing (my family had ours only 3 months). It seems like the busi
ness should have stopped selling annual memberships, as they likely knew they were not going to be staying in business for the full year of membership.
"We have tried calling, emailing, and sending Facebook messages, but have had no luck getting Spark to respond to questions about annual membership refunds. Is there anything else we can do? Or do we just have to accept that we wasted money on memberships that we cannot use?"
Sonya Darter, the executive director of the facility, asked for patience.
"The response to Spark closing by both members and non-members has been significant. While closing suddenly for personal reasons was unavoidable, I am hopeful that Spark will, going forward, continue to operate and serve the community," she wrote in an emailed response. "While it was my enduring dream to provide this space for the community, Spark has much possibility beyond myself to continue.
"In the short term, please be patient while we work through these issues. Spark will be reaching out to patrons soon with more information. On behalf of myself and the staff, we appreciate your support and enjoyed our time with you and your families. Thank you for all of your support over the last year."
Pioneer Drive purchase
"Regarding Unit 4's purchase of 806 and 808 Pioneer Drive in Champaign, who is the current owner of the property? What firm or firms provided appraisals? From a drive by the property, the building appears to be in need of maintenance. What is Unit 4 budgeting to pay for maintenance and upkeep of this new facility?
"The cost amounts to $2,155,412 per acre of land purchased, and nearly $98 per square foot of building. Did Unit 4 consider other properties? The Champaign County (Supervisor of Assessments) website reports the estimated fair cash value to be just $360,210. In other words, less than 1 / 4 the amount Unit 4 agreed to pay. Another way to look at the cost was that Unit 4 has agreed to pay $1,500 per tub that they need to store. Were there no other options available? Is this warehouse equipped with specialty equipment to justify such a high price? This purchase is a great illustration of why many of those who pay taxes to Unit 4 do not trust Unit 4, and why people outside of Champaign laugh."
The property was purchased from Shapland Realty at a price of $1,519,656.
The school district "had the property assessed prior to purchase. The property was valued at $690,000, based on the current warehouse structure standing today, wrote Emily Schmit, the director of communications and community relations for the district.
"The purchase price of $1,519,656 includes nearly $1 million in improvements that the seller already had planned prior to our discussions. Those property improvements have not been made yet and are not reflected in the assessed value."
She said the property would accomplish three objectives:
— Provides needed storage space for district materials; meets interim storage needs for referendum project work.
— Consolidates district operations functions including operations and maintenance, food service, warehouse and transportation.
— Reduces reliance on lease agreements.
Schmit said she could not answer your other questions. We will pursue the answers.
Safety suggestion for I-74
"Interstate 74 from University Avenue to the I-57 interchange continues to be very dangerous with all the merging traffic off Cunningham, Lincoln, Neil, Prospect and 57. I have seen numerous accidents and near-accidents and they seem to be occurring more frequently. I have seen some places where there is signage for drivers to keep left for through traffic, allowing semis to stay in the left lane as well. Can the state consider such signage for this stretch of road?"
Your answer comes from Gary Sims, IDOT District 5 traffic operations engineer.
"You are certainly correct that the high volume of traffic, higher speeds and high interchange density in the area creates some very challenging situations for motorists, especially when considering merging maneuvers," said Sims. "These very issues necessitated the construction of the auxiliary (weaving) lanes that were added a few decades ago between Prospect and Cunningham. The auxiliary lanes were designed to provide the maximum space for motorists to accomplish those maneuvers."There are a couple of issues with the proposal of lane use signage in this area. As with any signage, whether regulatory or advisory, compliance will never be perfect and it would be very difficult for police to enforce. This variable compliance can lead to false expectations by motorists across the system. One may reasonably assume that all vehicles in the left lane are going through the area and that all vehicles in the center lane are going to be exiting ahead, but what if they don't?
"The recent state law that prohibits use of the left lane except for passing also introduces a problem. If District 5 installed signs directing through traffic to use the left lane, motorists could cite seeing those signs if stopped for improperly using the left lane beyond this area."
Finally, he noted, "The left lane is still needed for emergency response vehicles and higher speed traffic. It is not a perfect situation, but it tends to help keep the faster vehicles away from the merging areas throughout the corridor."
"Not very a local question, but the interchange on I-57 just north of Kankakee has been under construction for what seems to be two years now. I have had to go to Chicago from time to time, over the winter it looked nearly done, and there never seems to be work to finish it. What's up with that?"
It might be completed later this year, said Joseph Wick, IDOT District 3 project implementation engineer.
"The project in question is the new 6000N interchange, also known as the Bourbonnais Parkway. The interchange ramps and overhead structure are nearly complete," Wick said. "The structure is still in need of painting which will be scheduled this season and will involve I-57 lane closures. Work continues on the overhead lighting and traffic signals for the interchange. What can't be seen from the interstate is at either end of 6000N there are new larger signalized intersections and subsequent mainline pavement being constructed at U.S. 45/52 and Illinois 50.
"The improvements at IL 50 also include a large railroad crossing improvement slated to begin this spring. As such, the interchange will not be opened until 45/52 and Illinois 50 are accessible; which will likely be in late 2018 (weather and railroad dependent)."
Lincoln Square plans
"Earlier this year, The News-Gazette reported that Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin wanted to hear ideas from the public for Lincoln Square Mall and the surrounding area. Has the process of hearing ideas begun and if so, how can they be presented to the city?"
"We'll be launching the formal visioning process in April with online and in-person opportunities to submit ideas," Marlin said this week. "In the meantime, the community can submit comments through the city's website at: https://www.urbanaillinois.us/node/7086.
"We encourage people to think in terms of transforming the entire nine-square-block site, which includes the publicly owned parking lots, Lincoln Square Mall and the Landmark Hotel."
"Some coworkers and I were discussing previous Illinois elections, and we were stunned to find out that Jesse White won all 102 counties in his first election for secretary of state back in 1998. It's not like the race was uncontested either; his Republican opponent gathered 42.5 percent of the vote. It got us wondering, has any other politician won all 102 counties in a contested statewide race?"
Alan Dixon, who was elected state treasurer in 1970, ran for secretary of state in 1976 and 1978 and in that latter year won by a record plurality of 1.5 million votes — 2.3 million to 797,560 for Republican Sharon Sharp — or 73.82 percent to 25.44 percent.
Dixon became the first candidate of either political party to carry all 102 Illinois counties in an election.
He even got nearly 65 percent in what was then a heavily Republican Champaign County. (In that same election Republican Charles Percy got 66.4 percent in Champaign County in the race for U.S. Senate and Republican Jim Thompson got 73.3 percent in the race for governor).
"Al the Pal," as he was known, was a native of Belleville, a graduate of the University of Illinois-Urbana and served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
After 30 years in state government (1951 to 1981) Dixon was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served two terms until he was defeated in the 1992 Democratic primary by Carol Moseley Braun.
"Does Clark-Lindsey Village have some sort of agreement with the Urbana Park District that allows its employees to park in the Meadowbrook Park parking lot? The parking lot is almost entirely full during the week with cars which have a Clark-Lindsey sticker on them."
As a matter of fact, yes there is an agreement, says Tim Bartlett, executive director of the Urbana Park District.
"In the mid-to late 1990s — during the time of major park development — Clark-Lindsey Village began to attract a higher number of 'two-car households' on their campus. The result was a lack of parking and a reluctance to pave more open spaces on their campus. At the same time the UPD needed to expand the gravel parking lot at the farmstead/organic garden area for the growing number of trail and park users and for more special events. The UPD partnered with Clark-Lindsey Village to provide a larger, paved lot at the Race Street entrance to Meadowbrook Park. This arrangement would allow limited, shared-use for daytime parking for Clark-Lindsey Village staff — just a short distance away from CLV — and provide a better parking arrangement for the public during evening and weekend hours."The concept allows for a specified number of parking spaces at the Race Street parking lot for their use in the daytime and more parking for the public when we have more visitors — evenings and weekends."
The result, Bartlett said, "has been a positive arrangement to provide a specified number of parking spaces for CLV use to offset parking needs on their campus Monday through Friday. Evenings and weekends are open for park use."
Clark-Lindsey Village paid for the cost of the site engineering and construction of the Race Street parking lot, he said. Since that time they also "have supported the UPD parking lot with fresh seal coating, tree replacement and maintenance of the lighting system in the parking lot.
"We have also allowed flex use of the lot for both groups — such as a past UPD/city of Urbana Arbor Day event at Meadowbrook Park. During that event more students, teachers and public visited the park and we needed more daytime parking on the Race Street side of the park for that day.
"Or to allow Clark-Lindsey Village more daytime parking for a necessary construction project or for one of their special events at the campus."
Bartlett said the park district is "very appreciative of our joint-use arrangement at the Race Street parking lot. The UPD encourages this type of 'shared-use partnerships' as it provides for better use of property tax funds, while reducing the overall areas that need to be paved and maintained."
He noted that the Meadowbrook parking lot at Windsor Road and Vine Street is not a shared-used lot.
Green/Prospect safety improvements
"How many accidents have there been at Green and Prospect since the major revision of traffic flow? Have there been any fatalities?"
"In 2002," said assistant city engineer Chris Sokolowski, "the city completed a project that installed mast arms and implemented the current signal operation (the split phasing for north-south traffic). Prior to the project the intersection had appeared in the CUUATS Selected Crash Intersection Location Report (SCIL) as a high crash location for several years. The types of crashes (including a fatality in 2000) were related to signal visibility (the intersection did not have mast arms; signals were only on each corner) and visibility of oncoming traffic when turning left (no arrow and no left turn lane).
"Since the project, the intersection has not appeared in the SCIL. The mast arms addressed signal visibility issues and the split phasing eliminated the turning issues. Left turn lanes were considered but would have required widening, which the nearby residents were opposed to."
Safer playground swings?
"I can remember when I was in school, the swings at local parks where I grew up were a lot of fun. Now as an adult taking my daughters to the park, the swings feel lackluster. I've noticed that swing sets are much shorter than they used to be so you no longer get the large swing arc that was so exhilarating. Why are all swing sets in C-U so much shorter these days: cost, safety?"
Bridgette Moen, a park planner for the Champaign Park District, said that playground swings have been modified over the years.
"In the late 1800s manufactured play equipment started to become more ubiquitous in the United States," she said. "However, it was not until 1981 that the Consumer Product Safety Commission published their first Public Playground Safety Handbook to help prevent serious injuries on playgrounds.
"Since then, dangerous equipment has been modified or phased out. Heavy swings (like old metal animal
figurines) and those with long chains have been found to cause serious impact injuries; children who are running around on the playground can be hit rather hard by those on the swings. As a result, the swings themselves are lighter, the chains are a little shorter, and there are only two swings allowed per swing bay. We also ensure that there is sufficient space around the swingset to prevent circulation issues and allow for a proper fall zone."
Moen noted that the Public Playground Safety Handbook is a federal guideline, not a regulated law.
"However, to ensure that Champaign Park District patrons can enjoy playgrounds safely, we follow these guidelines and regularly have our equipment checked by our 'Certified Playground Safety Inspector' staff. In addition, we ensure that any manufacturer who provides playground equipment or any contractor who installs it has the proper credentials."
City Quick Mart
"I was wondering if you'd heard anything about what's going on with the 'new'-ish Discount Tobacco Quick Mart that seems to have only just recently opened in Castilian Court in Urbana. I was glad to see new business opening there, but now it seems to be closed — fully stocked and everything — just never open anymore. Is the proprietor having some difficulties, or does the city have a problem with them?"
Here's the word from Brandon Boys, Urbana's economic development manager: "The City Quick Mart convenience store at 2005 S. Philo Road opened in July of 2016. While the business did stop operations recently, the property owner expects to have a new operator for the business in the coming weeks."
"After the most recent snow, I noticed a large number of mailboxes that had been knocked over by Champaign city plows. Does the city pay for those damages, or are the homeowners/businessowners just SOL?"
In Champaign, said public works spokesman Kris Koester, this can occur with the type of wet, heavy snow that was cleared this past weekend. Downed mailboxes can be reported to the Public Works Department email@example.com or 403-4700. It will be added to a work order. A staff person will visit the site to evaluate the damage and try to make a temporary repair. If additional work is needed to make a permanent repair (new post hole dug, etc.) they will schedule a time to come back out.
In Urbana, said Public Works Director Bill Gray, the city does the following:
— The operations manager meets with the resident to confirm that a city snow plow damaged the mailbox.
— Once confirmed the city will reimburse the property owner up to $75 for the repair or replacement of the mailbox.
— The property owner must produce a receipt confirming the purchase of a mailbox and/or material to repair the damaged or replaced mailbox
— Confirm the mailbox is installed per United States Post Office standards
North Champaign construction
Revisiting a question from last week ... "I noticed that earthmoving work has started on the land north of Champaign's Baytowne Apartments and west of Meijer. What's going on?"
There's apparently so much construction going on in that area that we got our projects confused.
A 30-unit addition to the Baytowne Apartments also is under way, said Mark Dixon, the director of real estate for the Atkins Group.
Illinois districts challenged?
"Has gerrymandering in Illinois been challenged in the courts? There's a lot of discussion nationwide about Republican states drawing districts to disadvantage Democrats. Illinois (among others) is an example of the opposite. I know we've had big court fights over the last few election cycles about blocking referendums about drawing maps in Illinois, but I don't know if there have been challenges to the actual maps any time recently."
The current congressional map, under which Democrats enjoy an 11-7 advantage, was upheld by a three-judge federal court panel in 2011.
Wrote the Chicago Tribune: "The panel agreed the map 'was a blatant political move to increase the number of Democratic congressional seats,' according to the ruling by U.S. District Court Judges Joan Lefkow of the Northern District of Illinois, Robert Miller of the Northern District of Indiana and John Daniel Tinder of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the court said Republicans failed to present 'a workable standard' to evaluate gerrymandering claims, particularly "given the unpredictable nature of Illinois voters' political preference."
The current legislative map also was challenged, in separate suits filed by the League of Women Voters and the Republican leader in the House and Senate. Both suits, which claimed gerrymandering, were dismissed by a federal panel.