Smile Politely

Empty spaces make us sad

The façade of building with dark brown brick, and rectangular windows with white trim. There is a theater marquee with red letters saying "Closed". A red sign with the work ART in white letters juts out over the marquee.
Patrick Singer

There are plenty of empty buildings and spaces around Champaign-Urbana. Some remind us of a tangible cultural loss to the community, like the still-for-sale and vacant Art Theater, and some are just a simpler reminder of a failed business and the absence of anyone willing to take over the space. (Is anyone not depressed by the four empty restaurants inside Marketplace mall, and several more outside of the mall?) The issue of empty businesses is not unique to C-U. Even New York City is concerned about the post-pandemic effect of offices sitting empty

It’s also not exactly fair to group all empty spaces into the same category. The Art Theater didn’t close for the same reason that the mall food court is half vacant, or for the same reason that the boarded-up gas station at Bradley and Mattis sits empty but apparently not for sale, either. The announcement of a beloved local business for sale always brings a moment of panic: what if no one steps up to buy? The loss of Hopscotch, Blind Pig, or Prairie Fruits Farm would be devastating. In each of these three cases, the owners are simply moving on — a desire to be closer to family, or begin retirement — but it still leaves the community wondering: what’s going to happen next? 

Sure, owners retire or move away, the American mall is dying thanks to the ease of online shopping, and the pandemic took a toll on businesses across the country. Businesses open and close and new ones (sometimes) take over those spaces. That’s the nature of capitalism. But what do vacancies and empty spaces mean for our community, when no one steps into these spaces? Let’s look at some of them in C-U.

Downtown Champaign

Beyond the Art Theater, the space formerly occupied by DESTIHL is the most glaring empty space. It closed early on in the pandemic, but even before that, they intended to leave their Neil Street location and expand to a new 10,000 square foot location at Carle at the Fields, so that location was destined for vacancy. Almost three and a half years later, 301 N Neil St still sits vacant (and DESTIHL has made no moves on that Fields expansion, either). It’s not as though new businesses haven’t opened on the same block in Downtown Champaign. The Literary has successfully taken over the spot left available by Hank’s Table (and previously V Picasso and Christopher’s Fine Jewelry). The Literary also quite amazingly regrouped after Hopscotch pulled their brunchette from the bookstore, and opened their own cafe within two months. The Space has made a splash around the corner from the vacant DESTIHL location in the former Merry Ann’s. Of course, it will always be easier to fill a small space than a huge one — a new, first-time restaurant is rarely going to come out of the gate in a massive space like the one previously occupied by the brewery. Regardless, we are still entitled to feel a little sad that that space in such a great location has been sitting empty for so long. Just next door is the former Miga, which is/was supposed to be a second location for Sakanaya, but there has been no movement in the two years since this was announced.

Northwest Champaign

This area is loaded with businesses, yet there are very noticeable vacancies. While that gas station on Bradley and Mattis isn’t for sale — and there has been some indication that something might be happening soon in the form of new posters in the windows and some people working on the roof — why has it sat empty so long? Especially when that corner also has Kraft (a major employer in town) as well as one of the best breakfast spots around; and the Parkland campus is right up the street: it’s not a low-traffic area. It’s also just down the road from the very sad Country Fair Shopping Center. We’ve previously written about how much potential this area has.

Midtown Champaign

Midtown has added some new businesses in the last few years, including The Crow and GroUp Gardening. A full-service unisex barber shop Groom Culture, which just opened in the last few months, took over the location left empty when Mother Murphy’s closed earlier this year after less than a year on University. There are still plenty of spaces sitting empty though, including the Midtown Plaza on First Street. The most notable (and noticeable) vacancies in the area though are the buildings left empty by the closing of Dallas and Company and the old Habitat for Humanity and ReStore location. While Habitat successfully moved to a larger location, Dallas and Co’s unique offerings were certainly a loss to the community, and the vacant building on 101 E University is a depressing reminder.  

Downtown Urbana

Urbana has recently done an impressive job of filling in empty spaces on Main Street: The Main Scoop ice cream is opening soon, Encanto restaurant has taken over the space previously occupied by Crane Alley, and Gallery Art Bar has opened right next door. These new businesses will hopefully breathe fresh life into Downtown Urbana and inspire more to occupy other vacant spots. 

Many of these newer businesses in town give us hope. If a bookstore and bar can occupy an old jewelry store, maybe the former DESTIHL doesn’t need to be a new restaurant. There are plenty of other absences felt in C-U, such as a lack of a children’s museum, queer spaces and bars, and art galleries / arts venues. While the Art Theater was a loss, surely someone (with the money to fund it) can imagine a new and innovative use for the space. 

Tell us, readers, which empty spaces in town can you imagine as something new? 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Serenity Stanton Orengo, and Patrick Singer. 

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