Green Street development reflects Campustown evolution

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  • 1980s: The waters of Boneyard Creek, which ran behind Green Street businesses, frequently spilled over and flooded storefronts located on the ground floor.

  • Campustown businesses aren’t letting ongoing construction affect their shops this summer, as they participate in the Champaign Center Partnership’s 13 Thursdays. Each Thursday, participating locations offer deals and discounts to residents to attract more people to campus.

  • 2002: The first phase of construction for Streetscape began and lasted a total of nine months.

  • 1996: Although a few chain stores and restaurants lined Green Street, overall development hit a standstill. 

  • 1940s-1950s: Before World War II, sororities, fraternities and residential homes were located on Green Street. The influx of students during the 1950s prompted commercialization.

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Water from the Boneyard Creek gently kissed the streets when campus awakened to find Green Street nearly submerged in a watery world of chaos. It would not be the last flood to terrorize Green Street in the 1980s; the continual floods would become a core obstacle in preventing Green Street from evolving.

“Campus had a severe flooding problem,” said T.J. Blakeman, a Champaign city planner. “The Boneyard was an open channel and would over flow its bank. It was actually a creek that ran behind all of the buildings on Green Street.”

Green Street was originally a location for sororities, fraternities and residential homes for professors and faculty members in the early 20th century. But when an increase of students populated the campus after World War II, the commercialization of Green Street became a reality to both the residents on Green and the University at large. In the 1950s, the process began and small businesses were added, slowly morphing the street into a “downtown” area for students.

But despite the addition of businesses, the city failed to make any real changes to the streets or sidewalks of Green until 2002. Much of this lack of change was rooted in the floods that occurred during the 1980s from the Boneyard Creek.

“The water would be knee deep,” said Michael Krassa, political science professor. “The stores at street level would flood almost every year.” 

Krassa has been on campus since 1984 and has seen the campus go through various changes.

The floods plagued Campustown and prevented future businesses from wanting to — or being able to — establish themselves on campus. However, once the city enforced a serious project to control the flooding, the reconstruction of Campustown was inevitable.

Today, students may not have to float down Green Street, but instead they are forced to navigate around the construction sites for the opening of new businesses and apartments.

“It’s definitely irritating while construction is going on,” said Isabel Ahrendt, senior in LAS. “But there is no doubt that it’s good for campus when the construction is done.”

It was vision that lead the Champaign community to make the decision to launch Streetscape, a three-stage project that began in 2002 with the demolition of Green Street from Wright street to Fourth street.

“Students today … they don’t realize how bad it was,” Blakeman said. “It was fast … The sidewalks were crumbling.”

In 2002, work began at the core of campus and construction lasted a total of nine months in the first stage of the project.

”We narrowed the streets from four lanes to three lanes, we widened the sidewalks out to ten feet. We tried to create a much more pedestrian-friendly environment; we added street trees and added new lighting,” he said.

The final stage of Streetscape will begin in 2016 and will involve the reconstruction of Fourth to Neil streets. 

“The new sidewalks from Fourth to Neil will go from four feet to seven feet, there will be street trees and we are narrowing the actual street as well,” Blakeman said. “There will be bike lanes, new seating and a new design.”

Since the launch of Streetscape, Campustown alone has generated $355 million in reinvestment and Blakeman said the city hopes the reconstruction from Fourth to Neil streets will be just as successful.

“I’m very proud of Campustown,” he said. “It has been a remarkable transformation.”

For Krassa, the campus developments from 1984 to its current state have yielded positive results for students and the community.

“It is definitely more visually appealing now,” he said. “Green Street just feels safer because traffic isn’t going as fast now.”

The construction may be an inconvenience for students, but the city sees the redevelopment as an asset to the community at large. 

In addition to Streetscape, Green Street will see other additions next year including the opening of Campus Center by JSM, a location that will contain apartments, a parking deck, a Marriott hotel and a retail space. The JSM project will be at Lot J and they are expected to open the hotel, retail and parking deck in June 2015 and the apartments in August 2015. 

“We’ve always thought a hotel was missing in the Campustown area,” said Jill Guth, director of commercial leasing and marketing for JSM. “If you look at other Big Ten campuses, most of them have a significant hotel presence right in their core Campustown area, and that was something that JSM has believed for a long time was missing here.”

Looking forward, Blakeman said he hopes to see more integration between the Champaign community and University students. 

“When I was a student, students did not go downtown, they do now though. We are seeing more of that blending, and I want it to go the other way too. I want the community to feel more comfortable going to Campustown because it is a remarkable environment. It is the most urban experience that you will find outside of Chicago in Illinois,” Blakeman said.

As Green Street has changed, it is only natural that it has become a space that students and faculty members predominately occupy. On the contrary, downtown Champaign has been the downtown for community members. But these trends are changing as more students begin venturing outside of Campustown and into downtown Champaign.

“I don’t really spend a lot of time on Green Street anymore; I spend most of my time downtown,” Ahrendt said.

Today, Green Street has evolved to become the heart of campus. While construction may interrupt its rhythm for now, Campustown’s rich history is still reflected in its streets. Although Streetscape’s third phase will end in 2016, the Campustown area will continue growing and changing with every year, according to Blakeman.

“There will be continued projects … People will take buildings down and put new buildings up. It will never be done. A city is never done.”

Darrah can be reached at [email protected].