Smile Politely

A nuanced look at urban decay in Downtown Urbana

A black and white photo from 1920 overlaid over a 2024 photo of the same building on the corner of Main and Race streets. The building is three stories with curved archways over the doors. There is an old car in front of the building.
“Busey’s” Bank, looking Southwest at Main and Race (c. 1920 photo overlaid with 2024); Liam Carroll

It is common knowledge that American cities were effectively gutted in the second half of the 20th Century. Fewer people are aware of what was lost specifically, or when. Particularly in Champaign-Urbana, some would say there are parts of town that elicit an “urban-decay” vibe, and while I would not disagree with anyone who made that observation, I think there are many reasons to be optimistic about what we have. This article and annotated images will compare Downtown Urbana in 1940 with the present day, courtesy of the Champaign County GIS Consortium, as well as the Urbana Free Library and County Archives. And while this article will look more specifically at Urbana, similar conclusions could be made for Champaign as well, with some slightly different conditions.

Liam Carroll

Urbana was almost entirely organized around a single intersection at Main and Broadway.

In short, Downtown Urbana has lost the compact, centralized character that defined it 80 years ago. When we think of cities, they need to have a center, right? Or multiple centers, if the city is large enough. Urbana was almost entirely organized around a single intersection at Main and Broadway. The junction of two interurban streetcar lines helped bring people from all over the twin cities and beyond. Today, the commercial block to the Northeast has been replaced by a suburban style office tower and parking garage. The commercial buildings to the southwest have also been demolished and replaced by a parking garage. All of this and more has a limiting effect on pedestrians downtown. I consider myself a relatively frequent visitor of Downtown Urbana, but I rarely find myself walking past the mid-block between Race and Broadway. There are some highlights to be sure, Priceless Books is a standout for me. But look at what used to be there (with a little Photoshop magic).

Downtown Urbana, looking Northeast at Main and Broadway (1969 photo overlaid with 2024); Liam Carroll
Downtown Urbana, looking Northeast at Main and Broadway (2024); Liam Carroll

Just looking at this picture, I can see several noteworthy businesses. First, a bank: Champaign County Bank and Trust. Banks used to be more local. Before credit scores, banks had to be a more personal experience. Someone would be able to take out a loan by being personally familiar with their local branch. Think It’s a Wonderful Life. Beyond that, Mel Root’s, a 24-hour restaurant, then a pharmacy, and a Montgomery Ward’s. Compare that with today, we have a parking garage. I think I can say I have never walked down that block, it is pretty inhospitable. There are groceries two blocks down at Schnuck’s but this stretch dissuades me from walking there. It might as well make the streetscape disintegrate into oblivion. I like that they’re renovating the tower and moving Brookens people there, it looks pretty tidy at least. Anyway, this was quite the block of businesses, but let’s keep looking.

Downtown Urbana, looking Southwest at Main and Broadway (1969 photo overlaid with 2024); Liam Carroll
Downtown Urbana, looking Southwest at Main and Broadway (2024); Liam Carroll

Another good one: Bean’s Hardware Store. Local hardware store is nice, and I hate driving to Home Depot. I can’t discern any other businesses on this block, but the building was nice. It is kind of a mirror to the one across the street with its Italianate cornice and carved lintels (top of the window). Although there is another garage at this site as well, I think this one does a little better at blending in with the streetscape. It is brick, and incorporates some public art, so there’s that. Still, I would like to see these parking structures be off the main drag. There isn’t really a need for them to be in such a front-facing location. I also like how there was a diagonal crosswalk, because you know, there was actually a reason to walk across this street and to those corners specifically. Corners are a really important part of cities, they become focal points and junctions where people intersect, they are interesting and lively. Good cities have lots of corners.

“Busey’s” Bank, looking Southwest at Main and Race (c. 1920 photo overlaid with 2024); Liam Carroll
Busey Bank, looking Southwest at Main and Race (2024); Liam Carroll

Busey Bank, a local business has survived and thrived. They occupy basically the same site, but the original rusticated stone structure has been replaced with this very 80’s looking structure and its accompanying parking lot. I don’t totally hate it, the old building was probably pretty cramped as they tended to be. It has kind of a pedestrian arcade (covered walkway), but its position means you would almost never walk under it. It does offer protection from the weather coming in and out of the building. Also, the inside is cool. I went in recently. It has an atrium with a large octagonal skylight and plants, and a Scarface-style glass elevator. 

Skylit Atrium with Glass Elevator and Plants at Busy Bank; Liam Carroll
Skylit Atrium with Glass Elevator and Plants at Busey Bank; Liam Carroll

Something buildings from this era often got right, having big atriums with elaborate greenery. There is even a second atrium on the back wall with more plants, this is a really well lit and pleasant interior space. Almost certainly an improvement over the legacy building it replaced. But same as the other two corners we looked at, I can’t get behind having the parking lot in this front-facing position, it would be a better use of space (of which there is plenty, 80% of this block is a parking lot) to have the building occupy the dominant spot on the corner, what with its sidewalk arcade and all. Again, corners create vibrant urban spaces. 

Beyond some of the demolition on Main Street, at least 9 square blocks in the immediate vicinity of downtown have been cleared for the Lincoln Square Mall.

Now let’s look at Downtown Urbana in the present day as a whole. Beyond some of the demolition on Main Street, at least nine square blocks in the immediate vicinity of downtown have been cleared for the Lincoln Square Mall. Now I don’t want to be against the Lincoln Square Mall, I think it serves a unique and specific purpose. It is a special mall for its walkability. But it still has a “decentralizing” effect due to its emphasis on parking. In the summer heat when you have to cross basically two blocks of hot parking to get to the Market at the Square. Eesh, I’m frying like an egg. Downtown has grown, despite the clearance of some key commercial blocks, but it has not grown efficiently. The services are now spread all over kingdom come, instead of being clustered around one accessible center. And many of these businesses have their own large parking lot. A much better use of space would be to stack some of these parking lots into a garage, or just get rid of some of it all together. I am quite positive there has never been a moment when all of this parking was occupied. There is a measurable amount of space that could be reclaimed by pooling, stacking or removing some of the parking around the mall, or around Carle South and the future H-Mart. And what will we put there? Housing and green space of course. 

Infill Housing at Green and Vine; Liam Carroll

A new development at Green and Vine serves as a case study for what infill housing could look like. This structure, directly east of the Lincoln Square Mall, has an attractive row-house character, with a brick facade and staggered setbacks to create space from the street. There may also be plans to road diet this section of Vine street. This place needs it, that car is six feet off their living room window. Something I must note, this building is only a couple years old, it is already showing some signs of faulty construction. The white stains visible on the facade indicate improper waterproofing. Brick walls actually breathe, if they can’t, moisture will work its way through the brick and leave mineral stains. It is mostly cosmetic, but could lead to structural deterioration and mold if not addressed. Basically if we are going to go to great effort to build housing, let’s make sure we build it properly. I don’t want to hear my neighbors through the walls either. But all in all, great job Urbana.

Water Stains (“Efflorescence”), an Indicator of Improper Facade Construction; Liam Carroll

The city has plans to replicate this successful example in several locations already. One is south of the mall at Broadway and Illinois, another is expected to be built at Race and Griggs, north of Analog. These plans have really good potential, and could supercharge foot traffic downtown by inserting possibly hundreds of new users. And the good thing is, Downtown Urbana has plenty of walkable services for them to use already, including necessities like groceries at Common Ground, Schnucks, and World Harvest, restaurants, a dentist, a number of banks, a bookstore, art galleries, coffee, live music, even my mechanic. With more users brought downtown, there may be demand to continue to re-centralize the area. This new development would offer an aesthetically pleasing and functional improvement to the parking lots that cover the area. Maybe we could squeeze in a park too? It is also worth mentioning the positive impact on public safety that increased density could have: higher foot traffic means fewer blind spots for crime, as Jane Jacobs observed in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is a must read for anyone interested in urban planning.

In conclusion, C-U suffers from problems that are shared by many other American cities like urban decay and car blight. More development downtown can reduce dependence on cars and make us more prosperous economically: higher density means a reduced sprawl of services like pavement and sewers, which lowers tax burdens for everyone! This city is an island of density that makes it a hub of walkability and public transit, and we are on the right track. I think we actually have a great opportunity to make downtown better than it was before. In the 1940 aerial, most of the north side of town was industrial yards. They were dirty and unpleasant, no one misses those. We can also make downtown denser, more populated, more inclusive, and greener than it ever was. With a healthy amount of infill housing, new green space, and essential businesses downtown, I would argue that there is great potential for us to soar beyond our pre urban-renewal downtowns. I want this article to be about nuance after all. It wasn’t just “better back in the day”: there are things we are doing properly now, and things we can learn from the past that we can harness to create a more sustainable future for everyone.

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