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URBANA — For Lincoln Square owner Jim Webster, the ideas pitched by consultants for the future use of his downtown Urbana mall are “all negative.”
“There’s nothing positive that I could see,” he said.
Urbana’s recently-released “public realm” study done by two consulting firms took a sweeping look at how to revitalize the city’s downtown, and among their many ideas were two new potential concepts for Lincoln Square.
Mayor Diane Marlin said she doesn’t want this study to alarm anyone.
Anything involving private property would need to be undertaken with a public-private partnership, she said, and keep in mind this was just a study, not a plan.
"It doesn't mean everything in it is going to get done," Marlin said.
One proposed concept for Lincoln Square suggested reimagining the property and re-establishing the urban street grid that was removed when the mall was built to create a unified environment between the mall and the rest of downtown.
The other concept suggested incremental changes, leaving the weekly seasonal Market at the Square in its current parking lot location “with a plaza and green space.”
“The two parking lots west of the market area provide the opportunity for mixed-use developments that could include multi-famiy and affordable housing unis with entrances on the street and parking and amenity spaces in the back,” the study suggests.
Webster, the owner of Lincoln Square since 2005, said he wasn’t consulted as part of the study process. But when two city staff members spoke to him about the study before it was released, he pronounced ideas for Lincoln Square “preposterous.”
“I told them they may as well demolish the mall,” he said. “There would be so much infrastructure to make it suitable to be an open air mall.”
Webster has his own plans for the 310,000-square-foot Lincoln Square, which currently houses a variety of offices, food businesses and retailers.
Improvements planned for this year include an elevator replacement, new LED lighting for the entire mall and updating restrooms. He’s also close to signing a new tenant, Webster said.
Lincoln Square has about 240,000 square feet of leasable area, and it’s 95-percent occupied on the first and second floors, and about 75-percent occupied on the lower level, he said.
The new Hotel Royer under construction next to Lincoln Square should have a positive impact on the mall when it opens, Webster said.
“We’re very excited about that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Webster said he got letters from several tenants voicing displeasure about the city study’s ideas for Lincoln Square. And he’s concerned about that causing some uncertainty that would impact their willingness to renew their leases.
Another concern: While he owns the mall, the city owns the parking lots he uses through a lease agreement, Webster said.
The uncertainty of future parking, alone, may cast some doubt in the minds of tenants, he said.
Just a study
People can keep calling this a plan, but, “it’s a study,” said Alderman James Quisenberry.
“We engaged this group to give us ideas,” he said. “So whether we take any of those ideas and run with them is up to both the city staff and ultimately the council. And I think the groups that do these kinds of studies are here to bring new ideas and challenge the status quo.”
The study provided some specific examples of how to accomplish some things, Quisenberry said, “but it’s mostly based on concepts.”
Opening up the mall, for example, may be an idea that has no real feasibility, Quisenberry said.
“The mall is privately owned, and we can’t tell a private property owner what to do with their property,” he said.
An idea that could resonate with many people, however, may be building a structure for the farmer’s market that would make it more viable in rainy and colder weather, he said.
Quisenberry and Marlin also both point out that two parts of downtown with big potential for new uses are the old county jail on Main Street and the city-owned Urbana Civic Center at 108 E. Water St.
Marlin said the city is looking at the Civic Center as a possible new bus terminal with gathering spaces on upper levels. And the former jail space opens new possibilities for a substantial portion of one downtown block, she said.
Marlin and Quisenberry see a good market for housing in the downtown, and Webster agrees.
In fact, Webster recalled he previously looked at building apartments over the former Bergner’s department store space in the mall — but couldn’t find a suitable way for residents to access them without also building a multi-level parking structure.
“However, we have never eliminated that possibility of having a residential component to the mall even though the north, east and west wings would need structural reinforcements,” he said. “But that possibility remains.”
Marlin said top community priorities for downtown are creating more public gathering spaces and more places for people to live.
“We have a very livable downtown,” she said. “We just need more people living there.”
Much has been learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about ways to use outdoor spaces at a time indoor gathering was off the table, Marlin said.
“I think if anything, the pandemic taught us that we could use public infrastructure in ways we never thought of before,” she said.
Downtown property owner Jonah Weisskopf said he thinks it’s important to push and increase the flexibility that the pandemic model began for outdoor gathering.
“Everything costs something, but that costs barely nothing,” he said.
The owner of 119-125 W. Main St., a building that includes the former Nola’s Rock Bar, Weisskopf is planning to operate a new art bar in the vacant bar space — to open this spring — that will include an immersive aspect of video projection and live music.
Creative uses of outdoor spaces, such as sidewalks and alleys, will require some flexibility on the part of the city in terms of zoning, he said.
As a business and property owner, he said, his goal is to push in that direction, and he plans to begin by pursuing some special event permits.
Such things as pop-up events and mini-markets could give businesses some outdoor exposure, he said, plus, it makes for a walkable space.
“When you create a sense of space that is quaint and interesting and charming, you draw people in,” Weisskopf said.