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Mecca in the Cornfields? Champaign, IL Transforming into a Walkable City

Maybe the title is a bit drastic. Nonetheless, Champaign has undergone some significant transformations in the last few years. Champaign is a city of about 70,000 located in flat, desolate Central Illinois. The city is bordered by Urbana, home to around 40,000 people. Champaign-Urbana is also home to the University of Illinois, a Big Ten school with a student population of around 36,000. The U of I is also my alma mater.

The truth is that Champaign-Urbana is a much different place than when I attended school there. Champaign was known as the sprawling big brother of Urbana, and had a mostly dead downtown, busy arterials, and rapid big-box construction that Urbana felt was a threat to their economic vitality. Urbana had the quaint walkable neighborhoods and downtown that gave it the “we are so much better than you” feel. And for the most part, I agreed. The stuggling university Campustown area, located in Champaign, was the location of a project that started to turn things around for the city.

I remember when the City proposed the project that I thought it would never work. Coming from a civil engineering background, I thought that reducing the street width from four lanes to two lanes with a center-only lane would create huge traffic problems and would further kill the Campustown businesses. I did feel that the proposed streetscaping would be a welcome change, as the main street in Campustown, Green Street, was nothing but your typical run-down and somewhat dingy bar-hopping area. It certainly had its charm for college students, but businesses could not survive the student off-seasons and there was significant turnover. Certainly, a road diet, which is what this type of “street shrinking” is commonly known as, could not hurt the businesses any more than they were already hurting.

I graduated and left the University and the area. Not long after I moved, some of my friends that stayed in Champaign-Urbana told me that I should to come back for a visit, saying that I really needed to see what they did to Campustown. So, I visited. And I barely recognized the place. Green Street was now pristine with pedestrian environment enhancing features such as countdown crosswalks (with audible crossing signals), and decorative lighting, benches, trash bins, and sidewalks. A new development had opened up as well, with many of the existing businesses remaining in the complex, but with new facades. The most striking feature of the new Campustown was the tower of new housing units placed right above the bars and restaurants. This gave a whole new scale to the street and instantly turned the street into a more urban and hip environment. In the last few years, several similar mixed-use towers have opened up on the street. One of the locations used to have a single, run-down house that was known as a hot party spot while I was in school. Now there are dozens of residential units in the tower. And the traffic? Well, certainly traffic moved more slowly through the area, but there are not major traffic backups like I thought there might be. The businesses are thriving, and from what I can tell, there has been very little turnover. Who knew that it was actually people that shop at businesses and not cars? The Campustown area does have very limited parking. It would have been nice to see some more on street parking. But this is a major problem for almost every city with a major university.

The City of Champaign has since copied the road diet technique in its downtown, and it has become the new place to go. Several new bars, cafés, and restaurants have opened. Also, a new mixed-use tower with condos has opened up in the downtown. Now Champaign’s downtown is a more desirable hang-out place than Urbana’s downtown. It seems to me that the two cities have undergone a role reversal since I have lived there. Urbana has several new sprawl neighborhoods on the fringes of the community. And a big box store will soon open in the vicinity as well. Meanwhile, Champaign is proposing to do just the opposite. The northwest growth area plan calls for “a grid street pattern, walkable neighborhoods and a traditional town center” and many other desirable features (Thanks, Centerlines ).

There are two interesting things about this project. One is that this project is located on the fringes of Champaign right between Interstate 57 and Interstate 74 and is highly visable from these highways. It will be interesting to see if Champaign can hold off the development pressure that typically occurs at these types of locations – gas stations, big-box retail, chain restaurants, and other uses that have large signs and even larger parking lots in front of the developments. The second interesting thing is that I actually worked on this project as a “mock” project while at the University. My class was led by Bruce Knight, Planning Director for the City of Champaign. His leadership has been a major reason why the City has undergone such a significant transformation for the better. I think the project they are proposing sounds better than the one my group proposed in his class. Of course, this is before I really knew anything about the true importance of walkable communities. Although I do recall sidewalks, trails, and open space being major themes of the development.

The picture above is the entrance to Campustown. The picture was actually shot from Urbana.

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