Smile Politely

The Village of Savoy wants to build a downtown

Two black and white images of Savoy, Illinois. On the left, grocery store and post office at the corner of Church Street and Dunlap Avenue around 1920. A wood building with a cloth awning out front. A handful of people are standing near or on the steps. On the right, Savoy cafe on the corner of Church and Dunlap Avenue. A brick building with CAFE painted across the entrance.
Village of Savoy

Earlier this summer, the Village of Savoy put out a request for expression of interest (REI) from developers to build out a “postcard worthy” downtown at the intersection of Church and Dunlap. In theory, this development will be multi-use with retail, restaurants, and housing, will have a plaza and, of course, plenty of parking. We support the economic development of Savoy. There are thousands of people who live there, and the village’s location on the far southern end of Champaign provides shopping and dining opportunities not only for Savoy residents, but also for people from smaller outlying communities such as Tolono and Pesotum, and residents of Champaign-Urbana who prefer a less-congested consumer experience.  

We remind people that Savoy is its own municipality, with a Village board and its own elected officials who have their own agendas. So even though Savoy feels like part of C-U and enjoys many benefits from their proximity, it is decidedly, purposefully its own entity.

The Village has every right to develop this area and serve its residents. But we have some concerns about what impact this type of development could have, especially when considering the parameters of the REI, and the social, racial, and economic realities of the Village. From the REI:

Our vision includes a compact, sustainable, and resilient mix of tenants built in a traditional “main street” style and with quality materials. Residents prefer traditional architectural styles to contemporary buildings.

The Village wants active streets lined with an eclectic mix of windows, doors, and storefronts, void of monotony and blank walls, and bustling with outdoor cafes, side-walk sales, and public seating.


[R]esidents indicated a preference for a traditional Main Street or Victorian Commercial architectural style for the area. Contemporary and modern designs are less desirable and contract with Savoy’s small-town feel and agrarian roots.

Our eyebrows raised when we noted the emphasis (repeated throughout the document) for traditional styles and buildings. It led us to ask: traditional to whom, to what geography, and to whose cultural preferences? Given the surrounding evidence and context (demographics, what elected officials and local parents have expressed), we feel like it’s safe to assume that in this case, traditional main street style resembles that of some idealized imagining of small-town America in early- and mid-20th century. If we’re to assume their vision of traditional references Central Illinois of yesteryears, most of the main streets were in towns with sundown laws. Within Savoy’s own history, there hasn’t ever been a fully developed downtown. Likewise, agrarian roots is a meaningless phrase pulled out of temporal specificity and meant to point to an ideal of some lost past. Savoy’s agrarian roots are real, but in a very long-ago past. It’s not a crime to like these styles, but it’s worth interrogating why and how these aesthetics become the default, and at what cost, especially to excluded groups. Rather than recreate a sanitized, mythological past, this is a missed opportunity to imagine a better future.

A graphic mock up of Savoy Village Center, a proposed downtown for the Village of Savoy. A drawing of the intersection of Church and Dunlap. On each side of the road are different buildings and parking lots. On the left of the image is a key denoting proposed designated use for each building.
Village of Savoy

Savoy has long been the most local white flight location in Champaign County. Newer housing developments, proximity to Champaign Unit 4’s much sought-after Carrie Busey elementary school, and distance from the perceived noise and crime of Champaign-Urbana have all been enticing factors. To wit: Savoy’s population is 77.4% white, 12.9% Asian, and 5.1% Black. The median income in Savoy is $92,086, a whopping 62% increase from Champaign County’s $56,847. 

Much of Savoy benefits from inclusion in Unit 4 schools, though there is a portion of the Village that is in Unit 7’s district boundaries. Last year, when Unit 4 revamped the schools of choice program, much was made in Savoy — by Savoy parents and Village trustees — about the importance of keeping neighborhood schools, which is to say they did not want further integration of other students in an effort to socioeconomically diversify the elementary school. That sort of sentiment is straight out of the school segregation playbook. It also conveniently glosses over the fact that Carrie Busey has only been located in the Prairie Fields subdivision since 2012.

Also troubling to read were the target demographic for housing, in particular (emphasis ours): “The preference is for a mix of retail, entertainment, and office or residential uses, which if provided, are accessible to a mix of incomes including families and individuals earning between 80 and 120% of Village’s median income.” Eighty to 120% of the Village’s median income is approximately $73,000 to $110,000; any housing built in this development would certainly not be accessible to low income individuals or families. 

The irony here is that the Village wants a development that is void of “monotony and blank walls,” and yet when you look around at the demographics and architectural style already within its limits, monotony seems a little inevitable. This REI is tailored to double down on an imagined homogenous culture of whiteness and exclusion. That doesn’t sit well with us.

More practically: Will retail and restaurants be able to thrive, when so much of their business depends on foot traffic? We look to examples of micro-developments like The Pines in Urbana and The Village at the Crossing and The Fields in Champaign. These are imperfect examples, of course, given that Savoy is its own municipality, but the ideas are similar: to build out a mixed-use area that will generate revenue for both business owner and municipality. What does it mean for the greater C-U metro area to have so many of these micro developments, when there is opportunity for infill and revitalization within city limits? Some have even asked why Savoy is not already incorporated into Champaign’s borders, but that is an editorial for another day. 

What we have observed in our 15-ish years of publishing is that redundancy in a relatively small metro area like C-U can be death to businesses. When those redundancies are located outside of the main metro area, without regular and robust public transit, it’s even more difficult for them to thrive. 

A development like this could be great. The addition of green space and a postcard-worthy plaza? That’s more than Downtown Champaign or Downtown Urbana can currently offer. This could be an opportunity to bring in a proper arthouse theater and build out retail and dining around a cultural entity, not unlike Sullivan’s Little Theatre on the Square. But the key to making these places “successful” has to be more than economics and perpetuating the stale and singular current demographic. With so much competition so close, the Village of Savoy has an opportunity to think beyond what is most obvious, small-c conservative, and “traditional.” It could become a destination for interesting culture and people of all backgrounds and class statuses.   

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

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