Urbana council to hear ideas for making downtown more vibrant

Mar. 11—URBANA — Now that consultants have completed a study looking at possible ways to make downtown Urbana's public spaces more vibrant, the city council will be hearing the first presentation of their ideas on Monday.

The $120,000 "public realms" study, which was launched last year and done with some public input, includes both "big ideas" and more short-term "lighter, quicker, cheaper" proposals.

The study was intended to find ways to reactivate the downtown, encouraging visitors and local residents to spend more time there, and also to help businesses recover from the pandemic, according to Stepheny McMahon, the city's economic development supervisor.

Those "lighter, quicker, cheaper" proposals would give the city a chance to try some things without making permanent and bigger-budget commitments, and some of them could potentially be done this year, she said.

Some of the so-called "big ideas" in the report, done by two consulting firms, Confluence and Project for Public Spaces, include establishing a pedestrian connection between the weekly farmers' market at Lincoln Square Mall to Main Street, creating flexible spaces downtown for music and other events and encouraging multi-family housing options for various income levels.

Three more big ideas include establishing public plaza and gathering spaces downtown that could incorporate trees, native plantings and amenities, a pedestrian and bike infrastructure and implementing a system of signs or gateway monuments to help visitors and residents know they've arrived at "a special and unique place."

The consultants also suggest specific focus areas, including the downtown core, "south" Lincoln Square and the triangle intersection of West Main Street and West Springfield Avenue, and concepts for each.

The report includes two possible concepts for the privately owned Lincoln Square.

One is for incremental improvements including, in part, leaving Market at the Square in its current spot with a plaza and green space, considering two parking lots west of the market as opportunities for mixed-use developments and transforming Walnut Street in front of Common Ground Food Co-Op into a pedestrian-oriented street to enhance the north connection to the downtown core.

The other concept re-imagines Lincoln Square, re-establishing the street grid that was removed when the mall was built.

"The mall would be deconstructed to expose the current pedestrian corridors located inside the mall and transform them into traditional urban streets," the consultants suggested. "South Broadway Avenue would then extend from Elm Street, where it currently ends, to the neighborhoods further south. Much of the existing mall structure would be retained south of Green Street to provide street-oriented commercial spaces."

That scenario also includes the northeast corner of the mall with a mixed-use development with the possibility for multi-family and affordable housing.

Among the shorter-term ideas proposed by the consultants are using the north half of the Busey Bank parking lot at the corner of Main and Race streets as a temporary gathering space for activities, depending on Busey Bank being interested and willing, and creating other temporary gathering spaces at the Main Street/Springfield Avenue triangle, County Plaza parking lot, the parking lot next to the Rose Bowl stage area and the parking lot for Hotel Royer under construction next to Lincoln Square.

McMahon said the council will be asked for feedback on the study, and the city staff will come up with a plan based on council input and available funding. One thing she and fellow staff members hope to look at is finding a way to connect the farmers' market at the Lincoln Square parking lot to restaurants and retail downtown, she said.

"There are 4,000 people who come to the farmers' market most Saturdays," she said.