Smile Politely

Around Town: The Fall and Resurgence of Neighborhood Businesses

Growing up in southwest Champaign, my family made a weekly trek to either Jerry’s IGA or Roundbarn IGA (depending on if Mom or Dad were driving) for our grocery shopping.

Hardware needs were fulfilled at the Roundbarn TrueValue. For a bookstore, Pages for All Ages was conveniently located in the newly built Old Farm shopping center, with a video store and ice-cream shop at the strip mall on the other side of Mattis.

Champaign was a small place for me. Market Place might as well have been in Indiana for as often as we went there, and how far away it seemed when we did. Everything that was needed — parks, school, church, groceries, ice cream and VHS rentals — was within no more than a few miles from home.

Several days a week, my Mom and I would take the considerable trip to Ogden so that she could take care of my elderly grandmother. Ogden meant freedom for me. Half the town knew my mother and, by extension, me. As a result, I was allowed to walk or ride a bike to Ray’s Grocery on Main Street (the new Ogden Bank sits on about the same spot) for cookies on the way to my aunt’s house.

These relatively close-knit communities, with residential, business, and financial districts coexisting, is simply how life was, and how it had been for as long as anyone remembered.

Aside from the IGA stores my parents preferred to frequent, Champaign-Urbana boasted various Eagle, Jewel, Eisner’s, Kroger’s, A & P, Richards, Save-a-lot, and K-Mart grocer locations spread throughout neighborhoods and small shopping districts. Small hardware stores, clothing stores, jewelry stores, and even a non-mall department store (remember Robeson’s downtown?) were easy access from many C-U neighborhoods.

However, in the early 1990s, things started to shift. An economic downturn took out Eisner’s and a few other smaller operations. When the dust settled and development began again, a Wal-Mart sat just north of I-74.

North Prospect had sprouted like a mushroom, seemingly overnight. Retail filled in the space between this new development and Market Place mall, forming the landscape we’re familiar with today.

As significant as this growth seemed, Meijer represented the most significant shift. It was a one-stop shopping experience in Champaign-Urbana. Super K-Mart followed and failed (it is now Home Depot), and only Wal-Mart (and to a lesser degree, Schnucks) has succeeded in competing with Meijer on its own level.

People got in their cars and flocked to the new shopping attraction, looking for bargains and convenience – often finding what most thought of as both.
Other grocers? We still have two of the three IGA stores that I personally remember, and County Market has succeeded in growing with the community. The remaining chains and many of the small, independent retailers that people my age grew up with are gone, only to be replaced recently in the wonderful redevelopment process taking place in our community centers.

The lessons of North Prospect, with its big-box stores, congestion, and decidedly pedestrian un-friendly environment, have been hard won. Seemingly with these problems in mind, the south side of Champaign and Urbana is taking a pointedly different approach to development.

Village at the Crossing (at the intersection of Windsor and Duncan in Champaign) began to grow with offices in the late 1990s, joined be retail (Walgreens, Ace Hardware, Abbot’s Florist, Picadilly, Espresso Royale, to name a few) beginning earlier this decade.

It has since grown into a community offering a variety of places to work, shop, and play – but it has maintained an inviting, close-knit feel. The difference? This development is surrounded by residential areas on three-sides, was designed with broad sidewalks, and a bicycle rack in front of every store.

On the far eastern end of the Windsor Road bike path, in Urbana, Stone Creek Commons formed under similar circumstances. Though the retail business has yet to develop, the current office buildings are at capacity. Local stalwarts Busey Bank and Monical’s Pizza have moved in, with Milo’s joining them soon.

Two ponds and wide sidewalks invite people to park their cars and take a stroll – and once again, bicycle racks can be found in abundance. Also, the development at Stone Creek Commons has made a concerted effort to tie itself to the local neighborhood through multiuse trails as well as roads.

These two developments represent a paradigm shift in the way we live, work and shop. By designing the commercial development to include multiple needs (office, financial, restaurant, retail), and entwining them with existing residential areas in pedestrian-friendly ways, citizens have been invited back into their own neighborhoods.

With fuel prices way up, it did not surprise me when I rode through Village at the Crossing last Saturday to find that every bicycle rack had at least one bike parked at it. Personally, I bike to work at an office at one of these locations – using the Windsor bicycle path to connect me from Savoy.

Pedestrian traffic has picked up here, too – centered on the burgeoning retail area comprising Schnucks, Friar Tuck’s, and Pages for All Ages.

These types are commercial developments, and the shift in thinking that they represent, are vital to moving America away from an automobile-centric society. We must invest in developments that have the potential to enrich our way of life and our communities simultaneously.

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