Abandoned and vacant buildings abound in downtown Champaign after three years of pandemic closures, business failures, downsizing and moves, a street-by-street survey by CU-CitizenAccess conducted periodically over the past 18 months found.
Many vacant buildings had businesses that closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but several empty buildings had been vacant, dirty and in need of repairs years before the pandemic started. Beginning in August 2021, journalism students found and photographed buildings in the downtown Champaign area to document the changes.
Some buildings, such as the former Seedhouse at 502 N Hickory St and 36 E Washington St, were clearly labeled for sale.
Click on a photo to enlarge it.
Other buildings appeared to be dilapidated. A Goodyear location on Walnut Street, which is permanently closed, was littered and had been for some time prior to the pandemic. Junk and debris from other buildings are seen spread outside. Old supplies and fixtures can be seen from the outside through the windows on some, while graffiti, overgrowth and general wear covers thick exterior walls on others.
Some buildings, however, were simply empty shells of former businesses with little to no damage
Champaign Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said the past few years have been dominated by the pandemic.
“There hasn’t been a lot of new things happening downtown during that time, it’s been kind of a survival mode,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of things out there in the process, but not too much has actually started in the last few years.”
He said there are plans in place for a hotel, a new design for a public plaza and an expansion of the Illinois Terminal, including some private development.
The former Skins ‘n Tins Drum Shop, the first drum shop in town and oldest one in the state, at 29 E Main St will be home to a candle shop called Fire Doll Studio this February. The building, along with several other properties, were recently given a $3 million grant from the Rebuild Illinois project. The grant was awarded to Historic Champaign Holdings LLC, which is managed by local retired doctor Bill Youngerman.
Knight said Champaign promotes the idea of preserving its historic properties through protections like the strip preservation ordinance, which can designate landmarks, and offers tax credits in historic districts.
“Downtown is the heart of the community,” he said. “It is the area of the community, on a per square foot basis, that has the highest property values and most economic activity. Not to mention the community identity that it creates.”
The former News-Gazette Building at 15 E Main St is now being used by the CS + X Foundation after being purchased by local businesswoman Laura Kalman in 2021. The foundation recently announced the use of the historic building for a new youth community center and a variety of programs to enrich youths up to age 18.
Empty buildings, empty lots and litter
Downtown along Neil Street and Walnut Street had several restaurants and retail locations either close or move to another location in town. Pekara on Neil Street, for example, closed in 2020 but a new location later opened on Springfield Avenue. Rogards also moved to another location, and Aroma Cafe joined with Cowboy Monkey, but closed earlier this year.
Vacant or for-lease building conditions often have work materials, tools and other objects strewn about visible from the doors or sidewalk when passing by. Other properties lacked business use or sale for years, such as the Art Theater, which owner Kraft Properties recently reduced the property’s price to $998,000, half of its asking price. Another empty building is the location of the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum, which closed in 2020.
“We’ve used tax increment finance money to provide incentives to encourage the renovations of [historic] properties,” Knight said. “But renovating an older property is always a challenge because there’s always surprises.”
Some areas of downtown have vacant lots in varying conditions. Many are for sale or have planned development, but others have been vacant for years. A few were photographed with clear signage for developments incoming.
“We’ve allowed the development of some of our surface parking lots of the city out in downtown to promote new construction,” Knight said. “But if there’s an existing historic property, we prefer to have that preserved versus torn down for new construction.”
Champaign’s Interactive Development Map provides “basic information on proposed, active, and completed development projects, as well as planned Capital Improvement Projects,” the website said. When clicking on a project, information such as the construction value, location, developer and project description.
Hotel Aloft for example, a seven-story hotel planned at 401 N Neil St, has a construction value of $18 million under the developers 401 North Neil St. LLC. Other projects have longer descriptions, such as The Yards, “an 11-acre mixed-use public/private partnership proposed by developer CORE Spaces,” which elaborates on planned use and specific facilities.
Knight said another hotel will bring new visitors that will shop and eat downtown, where many businesses are locally owned. He said more people living downtown will have a positive impact on the space, as 88 new residential units are being developed alongside the Illinois Terminal expansion.
“We’re looking for things that create a draw,” he said. “Mostly it’s about trying to bring people to our downtown and have them contribute to the local economy, and… more of that money stays in the community.”
Maithu Parthasarathy also contributed to this article. Photographs contributed by dozens of students enrolled in journalism classes. Not all photos shown.
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