Champaign looks at developing downtown

By Angelica Lavito

Downtown Champaign promises to provide visitors with a vibrant experience. Despite being the center of the city, the area may not be the biggest attraction. 

The Champaign City Council has been asked to explore multiple downtown issues this month. A plan to create a plaza at the corners of Washington and Neil streets was rejected, as nearby business owners voiced concern over the loss of parking if the plaza was constructed.

“West Side Park is two blocks away, and it provides a lot of green space. It provides a place for people to gather, things to happen, and I would like to see Downtown Champaign grow and develop First Street into Second Street reach and extend into Campustown,” said Karen Foster, Champaign City Council member at-large. 

The city agreed to offer video game developer Deep Silver Volition incentives to renovate their downtown office space in order to accommodate a larger workforce, with local business owners expressing their support because of the economic impact the business’ employees have on the area.

Other new developments include Hyatt Place opening this spring and plans for Black Dog Smoke & Ale House to open a second location downtown. 

Paul West, owner of Cafe Kopi, said the downtown business community hopes the hotel will bring more foot traffic to the area.

He added that it will probably be beneficial on the weekends but is “not sure how much we’ll see during the week and if they’ll be walking around and walking, shopping.” 

Downtown offers a variety of local businesses, as opposed to Market Place Mall and Campustown, which house national chains. Before the construction of Market Place Mall in 1976, downtown was a retail center that included department stores like JCPenney.

The city decided to cut access to downtown via Neil Street in 1975, which contributed to the decline of downtown as a retail hub. Neil Street was reopened in 1986, and city council adopted its first Downtown lan in 1992.

“Downtown Champaign over the past 12-15 years has seen a resurgence of a lot of new businesses and a lot of new buildings … all these things help to revitalize the downtown area,” said Erin Lippitz, executive director at Champaign Center Partnership.

Champaign Center Partnership markets businesses in Campustown, midtown and downtown. Lippitz said one goal of downtown business owners’ is to collaborate more and help promote each other.

Downtown offers a variety of bars and restaurants but offers few retail choices.

“I would like to see more retail,” Lippitz said. “What we have now with bars and restaurants isn’t a bad thing. It creates a vibrant nightlife, but some retailers have said they would like to see other retailers.”

West and Foster also discussed the need for more diversity in businesses. However, they understand the economy is still struggling and it will take time to develop.  

“It would be nice if people came down here during the day to support retail, but right now students are really excited by the nightlife, the food and the bars,” West said.

Champaign can offer incentives to businesses looking to open downtown, but Foster said no businesses have approached the city yet.

West, Lippitz and Foster all expressed a desire to expand downtown beyond the core area on Walnut and Neil streets. 

“If there was someone thinking more family-friendly or college-aged businesses on First Street, that would be a goal,” Foster said. “We’ve got a few things, but that wouldn’t be a draw for the college-aged kids.”

Angelica can be reached at [email protected]

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Karen Foster as saying Washington Park being two blocks away and providing green space. She said West Side Park is two blocks away. The Daily Illini regrets the error.