Reprinted from The WEFT Revue, Vol. 11 Issue 2: March-April 2003, p.6.

Environmental Update 2003

Dave Monk

I want to review the local scene just to remind ourselves of progress that is being made in and around Champaign-Urbana. Many of the planning decisions that have been made are awesome, and the community needs your understanding and your commitment to help in that decision making process.

End of Year

The end of year brought its usual excitements, reunions and spiritual uplifts. It also spawned the usual comments about over-commercialization. Some questioned the relatively narrow range of bar-trade celebrations. On the other hand, many of our celebrations have become more various, and they do include a very genuine breadth of camaraderie that is revitalizing.

New Year

The new year ushered in continuing resolutions. Environmentalists especially expect to "stand and be counted" locally and globally. This is because humans are by far the most debilitating element of our complex ecosystems. It is all too easy for us to zap and change fragile interactions that in the long run affect our lives. We are causing species to go extinct and removing "key" species at a rate not known before. And mutant replacements do not evolve anywhere near the same speed.

WEFT

In the first place, WEFT should be applauded for initiating its disabilities ramp. It has been interesting to observe old features like tin ceilings, lath plastering and brick walls emerge in context of the past and to see how those features are being incorporated into building restructuring.

Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity has rented the old Visitor Bureau building across from WEFT and we welcome them. The building has been vacant for five years, largely as a result of a bar control accident. The building will be Habitat's headquarters, warehouse and sales outlet for donated materials. Habitat has taken over the parking behind that building, so we will no longer be able to use that lot. We hope we will not lose the two foot strip of prairie that runs along the north edge of the parking lot. The strip provides an important introduction to our urban prairie to the east.

The Gallery

The "Artist in the Landscape Gallery" opens onto Walnut St. and backs onto ERES and was created by ERES, some 6 months ago at 120 N. Walnut, as an environmental art, education and bioscience outlet. It has been a real success. It has helped that Walnut Street has become the "active" street in the downtown with its wide range of shops, including restaurants, gift shops, photographers, a book store and a florist, and that leads to a walk-in traffic that does not exist on Market Street. It has also helped that we are located in close proximity to our Market Street urban which provides ambiance and teaching opportunities. The gallery itself is tall and well-lit and provides artists with an excellent opportunity to express themselves. Our artists are talented and enthusiastic. The gallery's educational goals have also been successful. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive and interactive. We had hoped to continue.

Unfortunately for us, however, Chris Knight, the owner of the building has obtained a City Liquor License, and we have to vacate the building by April 1 to make way for an "English Pub." When the time comes we will retreat to our Market Street address, so look for us.

Streetscape Upgrades

The City has nearly completed over five million dollars worth of streetscape improvements in downtown over the past five years, and these improvements are beginning to make their mark. Walnut Street has indeed now become a focal point of local downtown activity.

One of the nicest upgrades has been the restoration of a limestone pavement in front of the historic Solon Building on Market Street to the north of WEFT. We were not so pleased with the loss of the adjacent brick street that seemed to be in character with the neighborhood.

"Volition" under a partnership of Cody Sakolsky and Mike Kulas will be constructing a three story building on the corner of Neil and Main that will give the downtown a major boost. In order to build and maintain the building, over eighty parking lots have had to be re-distributed, which has been a challenge to city planners, as well as to the citizens who live and work downtown. The solution will probably be experimental and flexible until new formats are stabilized to the satisfaction of most.

Michael Markstahler, a near north end developer, is creating condominiums and other features in the post office area off Washington Street.

Carlos Nieto and associates, of High Dive and Jupiter fame, are upgrading the old Blind Pig, the old Johnson's Sport Store and the Gallery to a variety of uses. We are pressing for diversity and not too many bars.

Verdant Systems (owners Karen Kulas and Curt Tucker) have put in a Verde gallery, coffee shop, and newsstand on Taylor Street that is already proving to be an important contribution to the art and cultural aspects of downtown. The gallery opened recently with high quality art. The first exhibit sold out very quickly.

The Virginia Theater, now under the guidance of the Park District, has received an upgrade and become a historic attraction with active programming. The theater has been the home for many events, not the least of which is the Roger Ebert Film Festival.

The Orpheum Theater has become a children's science museum.

The Times Center has been built and is meeting the needs of some of our homeless.

Nearby, PACA, the Preservation and Conservation Association, has quietly bought and paid for its building on Washington Street, which facilitates the salvage and sale of old house materials for renovation and restoration purposes. PACA is also involved in policy making and giving awards as a vehicle for encouraging interesting building projects that have class.

The Boneyard has been "contained," and greenspace and bike/walk corridors are evolving, although not everyone gets excited by the cover-up and the huge detention pond that has been dug north of Green and west of First.

In the same vicinity, a satellite business district is slated to grow in the Burnham Hospital area after the hospital's demolition although there are some developer conflicts at the moment.

North First Street is also growing buildings that replace older ones. Public Housing improvements are being made on Bradley Ave., although one has to wonder if the replacement housing is sufficient to cater for the people displaced by less dense housing and Boneyard improvements.

A new library is in process, although there is much debate about its function and funding.

The university has been pushing south and north with its industrial "think tank" buildings.

A clover leaf is being built to access Curtis Road at I-57, and the railroad will go up seven feet and east twenty-five feet.

The airport is still only just surviving.

The malls continue to expand but not as rapidly. The downtown also serves a different purpose, in that it can no longer function as a major retail center. We look for diversity.

Transportation Issues

Transportation, parking and corridors are issues, especially where new buildings are going up. The Mass Transit District building in Champaign is now a well-established center for bus, train, car and pedestrian interchange, but it may also become a hub for a proposed local fixed-rail system. Rail extensions to that system could run to local bedroom communities, as well as to Willard Airport. A recreational rail could run to Monticello, Allerton Park and Decatur. All of the above extensions would use the principle of "Interim Trail Use" to secure the bed until such times as it is needed for traditional rail purposes, which may take a hundred years. The bed needs to be acquired now!

With the current growth of freight hubs and unit car trains, which pass our door, we might also consider routing some of our freight by rail rather than delivering it by road using 75 ft. semitrailers that are often half empty. That would suggest the installation of hub facilities to load and unload unit car freight semis and containers quickly and a transfer house to reduce a great amount of semitrailer traffic in downtown areas.

Water

We still have to be concerned with water, where it comes from, to whence it goes and to what extent it is polluted. Our Teahys River Valley has been sacrosanct, but it may not be so forever, especially if we draw on it for peak period power plant cooling and other heavy uses. Wetland biological swamps and breeding grounds also need talented preservation and maintenance.

Growing Population

Our park and recreation resources are excellent, but we still have to provide for growing and more sophisticated populations.

Community Involvement

We started out looking at the very local and changing scene near WEFT, but we soon took on broader dimensions. It is then that we realize what a tremendous task it is to keep our community resources together. WEFT is located in Champaign, but the issues we discuss at WEFT are typical of the region we serve.

**Your community and the world need your interest and involvement in these matters, but it also needs your love of life and sense of humor. Therein lies WEFT with its wonderful range of interests. Keep being involved.