Smile Politely

On the non-issue of parking in downtown Urbana

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been an increase in outdoor entertainment options in Champaign-Urbana. It’s good for business and creates a lively, bustling vibe that entices people to leave their homes for a bit of fun. One of the most popular pandemic-era outdoor entertainment venues was the big tent at the Rose Bowl Tavern.

The future of the Rose Bowl Tavern’s tent has been uncertain — as pandemic restrictions wind down, the public health imperative to provide outdoor options for entertainment were tempered. But recently, it was announced that the Rose Bowl reached a deal with the City of Urbana to license use of the space (for a monthly fee) to host daily outdoor performances from May 1st through October 31st. We think this is a good thing.

Taking over half of a small city lot consisting of 23 spaces in downtown Urbana, what started as a hodge-podge collection of furniture and a hastily thrown together tent in 2020 turned into a big white tent with colorful spool tables, a massive foam moon, fairy lights, and much-needed space heaters in 2021. It wasn’t particularly polished, but it had the kind of homey vibe you’d expect from Rose Bowl.

What was less obviously on-brand were the types of entertainment on offer. For years, the Rose Bowl branded itself as a honky-tonk and was known for its folk music, bluegrass, and blues shows. And, of course, the Urbana Hootenanny. But after owner of the Iron Post, Paul Wirth, died and Urbana lost a popular jazz music venue, the Rose Bowl began adding more jazz performances to their repertoire. Then, after a hugely popular dance party held in conjunction with Pride Fest, the venue added a monthly late night queer-friendly dance party. Last fall, Bat Factory by The Darkness Underground resumed their monthly goth night events with the Rose Bowl as the new hosts — complete with black-clad bar staff. 

Rose Bowl Tavern became a community gathering place for so many disparate community demographics and the tent in the parking lot was visible, fun, and a safer alternative to indoor gatherings in the pandemic. Although Urbana is a micro-urban area, it doesn’t have a tradition of recurring outdoor performances and tenants in nearby properties suddenly had unprecedented noise levels to contend with. There were also complaints about trash not being disposed of in a timely manner. A few business owners worried about the loss of parking availability.

A small but vocal contingent was against Rose Bowl Tavern’s free use of the parking lot to begin with, most notably Allen Strong, owner of Courier Cafe and Silvercreek. Despite having his own free parking lots adjacent to his businesses, he felt that losing metered city spaces would impede customer access to his restaurant(s). He is not alone in voicing concern about losing available parking in Urbana; Carolyn Baxley, owner of Cinema Gallery, publicly expressed her concerns as well. Abundance of parking is a contentious issue in our community. Most people complain about the availability of convenient — not accessible — parking, which we argue is a non-issue. In Downtown Urbana, there is plenty of parking to go around, including an entire parking garage on Main Street, street parking, and many other lots.

A side effect of this influx of people to Rose Bowl’s outdoor area, Urbana’s restaurants (including Strong’s Courier Cafe), welcomed new customers as people grabbed takeout to enjoy during or after a show; Rose Bowl does not serve food, but does allow outside food in the bar. The other complaints related to noise, trash, and aesthetics have been addressed as terms in the agreement. Shows Sunday through Thursday will end by 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday shows will end by 10 p.m. They will be reorienting the stage away from the residential buildings, facing east towards Bunny’s and Wicked Rascal Barber, and have agreed to ensure “that the space looks nice daily.” 

Urbana isn’t the only Central Illinois city recognizing that additional outdoor entertainment options should outlive the pandemic. Nearby, Monticello also announced a continuation and expansion of their downtown “parklets.”  

We think granting ongoing use of the parking lot to Rose Bowl Tavern is a huge win for Urbana and aligns with a broader growing interest in having event spaces downtown. Indeed, we are disappointed that other projects in Champaign and Urbana, which would have converted parking into parks or community event spaces, seem to have failed or stalled. We can only hope that this newly solidified venture will provide a model that will allow C-U to work through some of the growing pains and recurring complaints about outdoor events in order to rethink how we use our spaces, continue to build community, and breathe life into our downtown areas.

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

Top photo from Rose Bowl Tavern Facebook page. 

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