Smile Politely

Now that PlanOurPlaza exists, here’s what Champaign should do

PlanOurPlaza is a wonderful way to get in touch with planners at the City of Champaign; currently, they are sourcing input from the community to gather ideas and feedback on what will become a new plaza/park at the intersections of Main and Church and Washington and Neil in Downtown Champaign.

Ultimately, this is one of the most vital decisions in the history of Downtown Champaign’s economic development. Too often, these projects fall flat or simply don’t get built at all. The $95M development that was supposed to take over the area behind the News-Gazette building didn’t pan out. And while the same developer has proposed moving it south of Downtown, the scope and focus of the project is entirely different. The development of a second location for Common Ground Co-Op didn’t work out either. It suffered from funding woes and couldn’t get out of the development stage. Thankfully, with the financial and personnel resources that the City has, there is a great opportunity dead ahead with this project. There’s opportunity to develop this particular plot of land that will make sure that this area of Downtown Champaign doesn’t move down the wrong path for decades to come.

Right now, this plot exists as a parking lot, and doubles as a temporary event space for C-U Oktoberfest, the Land Connection’s Farmers’ Market, CU in the Prairiebbean, PRIDE Fest, and more.

Generally speaking, the argument against this sort of project begins and ends with people who complain that Downtown Champaign lacks parking. And it’s worth it for me to state right now that idea is simply not true.

Thanks to the Hill Street Parking Deck, and dozens and dozens of parking spots on the streets in and around Downtown Champaign, there’s plenty of parking available.

I fear we suffer from tunnel vision, too often, here in Champaign-Urbana. We are slow to change our minds about the way modern urbanization best functions for a dynamic and growing city. In a Downtown Business District, one simply does not generally get to park right in front of their destination. They used to, when the idea of a Downtown was dead, but that is no longer a reality. Buildings are rehabbed, businesses open, more buildings go up, the young and wealthy move in — you know the drill. And ultimately, people move on with their lives, and realize that the options that were once presented to them are no longer there, and they learn and adapt.

This is what must happen in Downtown Champaign. A simple visit to any city that’s even remotely similar to Champaign-Urbana (Iowa City, Bloomington, IN, Ann Arbor, Athens, GA), is a showcase of this concept. And it works.

I applaud the efforts of Lacy Rains and Tina Ansong, and the planning department at the City for taking this type of bold step for the future of an already gentrified Downtown Champaign. They have been tirelessly collecting data and analyzing other markets and engaging the local business community so that they can learn more about what it means to take such a specific piece of land and transform it into something meaningful. They are placemaking in a way that we haven’t seen since the 2nd Street Basin, but this time, in an area that is home to some of the most valuable commercial real estate in all of downstate Illinois.

Ultimately, as you can imagine, everyone wants to be exactly what they want it to be. As it goes, not everyone gets their way — and at a certain point, the data and input has to be collected, and the decisions have to be made about what the plaza will become. Some people will be upset because it might not be the thing they want, or appeal to their sensibilities, or even be in the best interest of existing businesses, specifically because of how much parking it will transplant.

As is stands, Downtown Champaign offers very little to two of the most important demographics that it needs to engage: millennials and families. With developments like the new Hotel VIB, across the street from the proposed Plaza Park — we have to get one thing straight: unless this community acts fast, our window of opportunity to create space for these two target markets is quickly closing.

You know what appeals to millennials? Food and drink, yes — but affordable engagement. Space to be. To watch, listen, learn, interact, meet up, and define themselves. If they are spending money, it’s on concert tickets, or at a nearby restaurant/bar, or buying clothing/merchandise — and then probably posting about it on Instagram or Snapchat. That’s where their money is going to be spent. It isn’t really spent on boutique hotel rooms all that often.

In an ideal world, this Plaza Park will be defined not just by the space it inhabits, but by a rich and diverse array of programming, offerings, happenings, access, and literally round the clock, year round engagement. That will cost money, and time, and resources. And it should be the directive of a city planning commission to find that money, spent that time, and create the resources to not just build it, but prepare for decades of programming to come. It is about interactivity with people — all people at different times, and in different ways.

This is the reason that the plaza is so important and instrumental in the next step of the development of Champaign. The focus should be on the people that work and live in the area, true, but more importantly, it should be on the people that haven’t yet seen it as an option.

The very best parks aren’t just parks — they are transformative meeting and gathering places for human beings to enjoy being outside, but also enjoy being alongside others, and within the pleasant habitat that is the city that surrounds them. That is simply the best part of being in a city like New York or Chicago, or even a Madison or Columbus. You get the feeling that you’re within a city while existing outside of it at the same time.

If you are staunchly opposed to this sort of not-so-radical idea for development in a city like this one, I have some sad news for you: the development of the City doesn’t have time for you. For too long, the driver of Downtown Champaign has been almost exclusively bars and restaurants, most of them decent, but not very many of them are all that memorable.

The time has come for a second phase in the reconstruction of the center of our City, and if the planners in Champaign have the courage, they will be able to jump start it and push that through in a new and exciting direction.  

Top image from Google Maps.

Executive Editor

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