Smile Politely

Imagining the future of Downtown Urbana

A view down a wide street at dusk, with buildings lining either side. Streetlights are on, and some of the buildings have string lights on their facades.
Sam Logan

Change is afoot in Downtown Urbana. In the past couple of months, two Main Street mainstays have closed: Crane Alley and The Dancing Dog Eatery. On the positive side, Rose Bowl Tavern is bringing nightly live music to Downtown, as well as providing an inclusive outdoor gathering space. It seems as though the former Iron Post space is getting a makeover soon. The mammoth Urbana Lincoln/Urbana Landmark/Jumer’s hotel that has been vacant since 2016, (and had not been thriving for years prior), is finally seeing some action, albeit a bit more slowly than anticipated. Lincoln Square Mall is still lacking vibrancy and cohesiveness, though there are some bright spots within. 

There are a lot of possibilities for Downtown Urbana in the near future. In fact, the City of Urbana is in the process of developing a new comprehensive plan, and they are asking community members for input about what they envision for the city. There is an opportunity for this part of our community to become a bustling destination, and we have some ideas about what we’d like to see.

Disclaimer: We are imagining here. Wishing. Putting ideas into the universe. Some might be imminently possible, others are a bit loftier. We’re not talking logistics and financial feasibility. Dream with us for a minute.

Let’s round out the restaurant scene

Smile Politely readers are very invested in local food and drink, and we are too. There are some solid options that already exist in Downtown Urbana, but there is definitely room to grow. We would love to see a brunch or bistro sort of establishment, and/or another coffee shop. The loss of Crane Alley left a gaping hole, and we hope another gastropub will take its place. Crane Alley’s extensive beer selection was unrivaled, and the food was a step beyond a typical bar menu, especially pre-pandemic. We’ve also mentioned a need for a traditional ice cream parlor in C-U. This would be a great addition to Main Street. 

We still think there should be a park at Lincoln Square

In 2018, the City of Urbana held a community forum to gather suggestions for the future of Lincoln Square Mall. At the time, we offered our two cents: that the city should focus on the parking lots, and turn the south lots along Illinois Street into a public park and plaza. Here’s a bit of that suggestion:

It should be expansive, from Race to Vine, but with the future in mind, mostly. No cars should be able to drive into it, except for emergencies, or to load and unload for the market or a special event. There should be old growth trees planted, not for us, but for the generations to come. There should be a lot of things to do, for all kinds of people. There should be an interesting playground for families with children. There should be a dog park for people with dogs. There should be a public fitness space that encourages calisthenics. There should be walking paths that lead you in and out of the park. There should be sculptures and odd bits of artistic engagement throughout. There should be a plaza that hosts the market, but that can be most anything at any time that isn’t 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, which is to say the Market at the Square should stay open later in the day moving forward.

This should be a place where people can play and vendors can set up and sell wares or food, on any particular day. There should be a lot of public seating, everywhere. Benches should be prevalent along the walkways, which should be landscaped with perennials like hostas and flowers of various kinds for easy maintenance. Tables should have chessboard tabletops. Add in a few concrete ping pong tables, or a horseshoe pit. Make the game pieces available to borrow from an info kiosk. Play or don’t, but have the option.

We still believe in this idea, maybe even more so with the hotel coming back to life. Imagine everything listed above, plus a permanent community stage for music, performing arts, and more. 

Unique entertainment options

We’ve decried the lack of entertainment options in discussing the issues in Downtown Champaign. A vibrant downtown needs more than restaurants and bars. We’d like to see more options in Downtown Urbana, too. The music at Rose Bowl is great, C-U Adventures in Time and Space is really fun. How about we add in an arcade and gaming space that can appeal to adults and families? Asheville has something like this. We don’t have a dance club in C-U. Wouldn’t it be great to have a fun bar where a dance floor is the focus — one that has theme nights to draw a variety of people? The Cohen Building is a unique space with a lot of potential, and the owner is envisioning how it might be a place for events. There’s even talk of a speakeasy in the basement. More of this, please! 

A queer space

Speaking of entertainment options, we would love to see a space meant for LGBTQ+ members of our community. We’ve shared about this need on more than one occasion in this magazine; after C Street closed in 2017, again in 2020, and the need remains. Though Uniting Pride is doing an amazing job with programming, utilizing inclusive spaces like NOLA’s and the Rose Bowl for events, we want to see a space run by and for queer folks. We are living in a time where it’s more important than ever. 

A place for the kids

Another drum we’ve been beating over the past several years is a need for a proper children’s museum. The Orpheum never quite fit the bill, and with its closing, there is no such space left for young ones in our community. It needs to be educational and fun, with engaging programming. With the depth and breadth of resources we have in the University of Illinois, Parkland College, the Urbana Park District, and local businesses, this can happen. 

These ideas are only scratching the surface. What would you like to see in Downtown Urbana?

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

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