The Quest to Reinvent Urbana’s Lincoln Square

Lincoln Square Mall Entrance in downtown Urbana

Entrance to Lincoln Square Mall in downtown Urbana.

Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln Square Mall and the old hotel adjacent to it were built to attract people and dollars to downtown Urbana. Both buildings have seen better days. But city officials hope to revitalize the Lincoln Square area — and they’re asking the public for ideas.

At a recent meeting of the Urbana Historic Preservation Commission, members of the panel were asked to close their eyes and think back to a public place they had really enjoyed. The commissioners remembered places they had been that were easy to explore on foot, and filled with greenery and interesting places to visit:

One commissioner remembered a visit to New Hope, Pennsylvania, "kind of this quirky artsy town," near where his mother lives. A second member of the panel thought of a European-style city plaza: "I kind of envision these buildings where the upper floors are for living, work, and the lower flors are a variety of community spaces. And a third commissioner thought bakc to a visit to the Mexican city of Guanajuato, where "you can just walk everywhere and there's great architecture."

Like other boards and commissions in Urbana, the Historic Preservation Commission was following Mayor Diane Marlin’s request to envision how Lincoln Square’s nine square blocks could gain new life and activity. She’s also asking the public for ideas in a campaign she calls "What's in your Square?" Its website includes an online survey  and a series of public meetings, asking people what they would like to see at Lincoln Square. (The first public meeting was held June 20; more meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, June 27 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, June 30 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. All meetings are at Lincoln Square Mall.)

"We could be utilizing that space much better than we currently are," said Marlin, who says she remembers her days as a University of Illinois student, when Lincoln Square Mall was a primary shopping destination. "Let’s think big and think about the site as a whole, and what people want to see there and do there, and what can we develop here to enhance the site, enhance what’s already there, but to kind of position us for the next fifty years.”   

The main components of Lincoln Square are the shopping mall, the hotel — closed and up for sale — and surrounding parking lots. The parking lots are pivotal because they’re owned by the city, giving Mayor Marlin and other Urbana officials some leverage in any future development. (The mall and hotel at Lincoln Square are both privately owned and listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The parking lots are also the site of the busiest event you’ll find these days at Lincoln Square — the Market at the Square.

The Market at the Square attracts the sort of crowds that Mayor Marlin wishes Lincoln Square could attract every day. On a recent Saturday morning, the southeast parking lot at Lincoln Square is filled with vendors' booths and shoppers. A saxophonist regales visitors with solo renditions of "Surfer Girl" and other songs. The Mart at the Square — which is operated by the city — provides a place to buy fresh produce, baked and home-canned goods, prepared foods from food trucks and arts and crafts.

Chuck Avery is one of the regulars selling fresh produce at the Market at the Square. Avery, who farms near Penfield, says he's been coming to the market for the past seven or eight years. He also does business at the mid-week farmer's market in downtown Champaign, but says Urbana's Market at the Square is a much bigger affair. On this particular day, Avery says the asparagus is his biggest seller, perhaps because it's tne end of the season, and he's the only vendor who has any.

“Oh, this is a very good market, I think, for most vendors," said Avery. "I think this is a big income producer for them.”  

The market draws in more than 4,000 people a Saturday during the peak of its May-to-October season. Mayor Marlin says people taking the "What's in your Square" survey frequently cite the Market at the Square as one of the best things about Lincoln Square today. 

When it's open, the Market at the Square can overshadow the Lincoln Square shopping mall. The mall was built in the 1960's as downstate Illinois' first indoor shopping mall, and one of the few malls built in a downtown area. Once a major shopping attraction, the Lincoln Square Mall attracts fewer people today. It still has several tenants, but its lineup has evolved over the years into an eclectic mix of independent retailers, office space, service sector businesses, and non-profits ranging from churches to a  thrift store.

Foot traffic at the Lincoln Square Mall is low, but one new tenant says it will be a step up for them. Jesse Rudell manages the non-profit I.D.E.A. Store, which sells arts and craft supplies to educators and artists. They’ll be moving to Lincoln Square this fall.

“I really liked the fact that there’s a lot of traffic that comes through for the farmer’s market, for the other businesses in the mall," said Rudell. "And we could reach a broader segment of the community that way.” 

Lincoln Square Mall owner Jim Webster says the I.D.E.A. store is just one of the new tenants he’s working to bring in. He's also working to fill the office space left vacant by the recent departure of Carle's Health Alliance subsidiary (the office space fills an area that once housed a department store). 

Meanwhile, the separately owned Urbana Landmark Hotel attached to the mall remains vacant and for sale. The 128-room hotel, built in the 1920s with a wing added in the 1980s, was designed by local architect Joseph Royer. The front of the building, impressive in old photographs, is obscured by its physical connection to the mall. Mayor Marlin has suggested that a piece of the mall could be torn down to make the hotel entrance visible once again — although she says it's just a personal thought, not a serious proposal.

But the hotel's major problem right now is that it's been closed since 2016. Marlin says prospective buyers have looked at the property from time to time, but none have considered it financially viable. One developer proposed reopening the the Urbana Landmark as a boutique hotel under a brand name franchised from the Hilton hotel chain. But that proposal sought the issuance of city bonds to finance it, and the developer and Urbana City Council failed to agree on terms.

Alice Novak wishes that Urbana city official had given the proposal more of a chance. Novak chairs the Urbana Historic Preservation Commission, whose visioning exercise opened this report. Novak also teaches urban planning and development at the University of Illinois, and says the key to reviving Lincoln Square is to find a use that doesn’t duplicate other local attractions.

Novak says the next use of Lincoln Square should be "something that offers a unique way to have a destination in the downtown, instead of avoiding downtown. That kind of fit is going to be different, depending on the community. For Urbana, it might attract a whole set of different prospective businesses that would fit that mold. But I think we also need to look at the importance of the hotel as a potential anchor as well.”

The search for ideas for revitalizing Lincoln Square will continue through the summer, and Mayor Marlin hopes the effort will attract investors and developers. She expects the process of transforming the area to take years, but that the work should begin now.

Story source: WILL