Urbana plans new uses for shopping area

By Nate Sandstrom

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles focusing on the economic problems facing the Philo Road business district in southeast Urbana.

In the parking lot in front of Sunnycrest Mall in southeast Urbana, it is quiet enough to hear a dog barking in the distance. Inside, the mall is empty except for a custodian. A directory lists the offices and shops that reside in the building; seven spaces are listed as “vacant.”

Across the street from the mall, the boarded-up windows of a former Kmart are almost invisible from Philo Road at night. Unlit light posts keep the massive parking lot dark.

In an effort to attract people and business back to southeast Urbana, the Urbana City Council approved the Philo Road Business District Revitalization Plan on Feb. 7. The plan set goals and provided strategies to attract more businesses to the area. John Regetz, Urbana’s economic development manager, said available spaces, such as a former Kmart and former Jerry’s IGA, are too small for the needs of large general retailers. In order to fill the empty spaces, Regetz said, Urbana needs to use a mix of creativity and financial incentives.

n Looking Elsewhere

As the city staff created the economic development plan for the area, they took some of their ideas from Web sites that examined how other communities have dealt with large, empty retail spaces, sometimes referred to as “big-box stores.”

One of those Web sites is bigboxreuse.com, run by Julia Christensen, an artist based in Troy, N.Y. Christensen drove almost 20,000 miles across the country interviewing developers, government officials and members of the community in cities that have faced the big-box problem. She said she used the information she gathered to develop the Web site, a future book and, perhaps, a future documentary.

The buildings in her research have been converted to apartments, schools, churches, government buildings and even the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn.

“Every place I go to, the people reusing the building were really enthusiastic about it,” Christensen said.

She was inspired to undertake the project after a former Wal-Mart was torn down and replaced by a courthouse in her hometown of Bardstown, Ky.

“It was a powerful example of how the community can put the space to a creative use,” Christensen said.

After a windstorm in Hastings, Neb., destroyed a Head Start office, Deb Ross, the office’s executive director, said they moved to a former Kmart store that had been empty for 10 years.

Head Start was able to convert the hollow building into a facility with 78 different rooms, doubling the number of people they serve to about 500, Ross said.

“It really works well,” Ross said. “It’s very cost-effective. I’d recommend it (reusing an old building) to anybody.”

Many Wal-Marts have been converted into creative uses such as those that Christensen detailed, said Wal-Mart spokesperson Dan Fogleman.

There were 130 empty Wal-Marts in the United States as of January, Fogleman said, and Wal-Mart’s realty division began to pursue businesses to replace existing buildings before they closed.

Wal-Mart Realty’s Web site lists 323 available buildings in the United States, including former Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores.

Financial troubles have afflicted other chains. Kmart has closed more than 600 stores in recent years. Winn-Dixie, a Jacksonville-based grocery chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February and might have to close some of its 920 stores.

Christensen said many big-box buildings have life spans of five to seven years before the stores need to grow and move to larger buildings. Left behind are unsightly buildings along with small neighborhood businesses that might suffer as fewer people are attracted to the area.

n Some Philo Road Businesses Succeed

Along Philo Road, however, some stores have survived.

Bob Cooper, who owns the True Value Hardware store at 1303 E. Colorado Ave., near the south end of the business district, said his store has survived by providing good service and specialized products that are not available at larger chain stores.

Cooper said he is remodeling the store this year, including installing new flooring and shelving, as well as overhauling the look of the store.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said.

Cooper said his store had survived the state’s decision to move the Route 130 designation from Philo Road east to High Cross Road in 1991, which caused traffic counts to decrease in the area. Meanwhile, traffic counts rapidly increased along North Prospect Avenue near Marketplace Mall in Champaign.

Urbana is providing subsidized loans to Cooper to help him make improvements to the store. Regetz said the city made maintaining existing businesses in the area a priority, adding that the loans to Cooper’s store is an example of how Urbana was already working proactively in the area.

Regetz said new construction, such as extending Colorado Avenue east to Stone Creek Boulevard, would make the area more accessible to residents of new housing that lies between High Cross and Philo roads.

“The plan is in place,” Regetz said. “The funding is in place. This will happen in 2006. We’re not at the chalkboard on it.”

The city also plans to make improvements to the visual appearance of the Philo Road area, such as landscaping, to attract more customers and businesses. Urbana has also added signs and banners welcoming people to this business district.

n Waiting for Development

Until the improvements are made, though, those who live, work and shop in the area are left to deal with the aftermath of the closings.

“A lot of people laugh about the signs. It’s like ‘Welcome to the Philo Road Business District’ and then a few blocks later you’re leaving,” said Carla Miller, an employee of the Piccadilly liquor store that stands south of the old Jewel store.

Miller was one of several people in the neighborhood who said it seemed that some residents of new housing developments in the area did not want businesses in the area. Several of the more than 300 seniors who live in the area said a Meijer supermarket would be ideal for the area. Some neighborhood residents, however, fought against a Meijer store that was proposed on the corner of Philo And Windsor roads in the mid-1990s.

Ed Barstow, 87, who lives in Sunnycrest Manor, 1805 S. Cottage Grove Ave., has to use a walker and has lost vision in his right eye. Still, he walks to the bus stop for a ride to northwest Champaign to do his shopping.

Because he often has to wait outside in the cold, he said he decided he needed a pair of long johns. He was unable to find any at the stores along Philo Road, he said, and tries to avoid the traffic “mess” along Prospect Avenue in Champaign. He said he thought he could get a pair at the Farm & Fleet on Cunningham Avenue in Urbana, but was unable to figure out how to get there on a bus.

Finally, he got his long johns after a friend gave him a ride to the Farm & Fleet. But he said that was the type of small purchase that was easier to make when the Kmart was around.

“That was a heartbreaking thing,” Barstow said of the Kmart closing.

“I can’t understand,” he said as he pointed out his window toward Philo Road. “I spend all my money here, but they can’t seem to get any businesses here.”