Champaign pushing for downtown housing

By Daniel Johnson

Editor’s note: In the original version of this story, Councilmember Tom Bruno was quoted as saying,”When you look at downtown now, you see insurance offices, realtors, bank offices. It’s all business, sadly. It really turns into a ghost town at night, and we’re trying to find a way to create a housing alternative.” However, that quote was incorrect. The story reflects the correction. The Daily Illini regrets the error.

In an attempt to find new ideas for downtown Champaign, members of the Champaign City Council and the city’s planning committee traveled to the Quad Cities Thursday. The group visited downtown Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and a study session Tuesday night will serve as a forum to discuss observations made on the trip and other possibilities for providing more housing options in downtown.

The city is already pushing for more residential space in downtown, and the trip was spent trying to determine the best ways to incorporate a living situation into the business-centric area.

“Other communities that struggle with sleepy or dead downtowns, are trying to encourage housing downtown as a way to make it a 24 hour, seven day a week atmosphere,

At-Large Council member Tom Bruno said.

Bruno said that the area is “hopping every night” but that additional housing would give the area a better 24-hour feel. There are already some housing options available downtown, including the M2 building currently under construction. The emphasis of the trip was observing how other cities are using buildings that are already in place for housing, be it old warehouses, shops or whatever is available.

“We saw things that are unique solutions to a housing expansion,” said assistant city manager Dorothy Ann David. “We saw an old high school in Moline that was converted into apartments, and in Rock Island there were a lot of warehouses that had been converted to condominiums.”

Although there is a desire to have more residential area downtown, the high cost of developing the area and the poor economy has the city considering a plan based more on the fringe of the downtown area.

The city’s downtown tax increment financing district, which has provided subsidies toward realty in the city’s core, is largely committed toward the new parking structure at Hill and Randolph streets, and there will likely be little funds available for more subsidies to be used for several years.

“There might not be people right in the heart right away, but given time there will be, and we should be able to develop the skirts of downtown, as well,” David said.

For the time being, the goal remains finding the best solution to fully enable development.

“Right now, it’s mostly about just finding what might be best for the area for now,” Bruno said. “We want to be able to let everyone who wants to live downtown be able to. We don’t want 22-year-old (University) graduates saying, ‘I want to get the hell out of Champaign,’ and move to Wrigleyville or the South Loop. We want to be able to keep people in Champaign with an area that is desirable to live in.”