Revitalization efforts in downtown Urbana focus on housing, more shops

With the last piece of needed funding recently locked down, the ‘Legacy Place’ senior housing project in downtown Urbana is one step closer in bringing more than a dozen apartments in the area.

It is something city officials say will have a trickle down effect in downtown. The hope is with more people living there, it will boost business for shops and restaurants that are within walking distance.

In the past five years, the number of living opportunities in the area have about doubled.

There are currently more than 25 apartments and lofts in downtown Urbana. Most of them occupy the second and third floors of historic buildings that in some cases had gone untouched for decades, said Rob Pollock, the president of the Champaign County Preservation Alliance.

He said there were only 14 of those units in 2014. Some local organizations say though downtown living is nothing new, there has been more of an effort in recent years to create those living spaces.

That includes plans to convert a long vacated building on Monument Square into senior housing. Pollock said that project has potential to not only increase the number of people living in the area but also generate more local business.

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More funding was recently secured for a project that aims to convert the Douglas Hotel, which has sat vacant for 16 years, as well as the former North and South Elementary Schools, into affordable apartments.

The goal is to create a total of 51 housing units that will be available to residents 55 and older, the News-Sun reported. Of those units, 20 would be in the Douglas Hotel on Monument Square with retail on the first floor.

The developers of the project, Flaherty & Collins Properties with the help of several community partners, was awarded a $700,000 grant through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati in November. The Ohio Housing Finance Agency also approved a loan for the project for $1.25 million. Prior to that, the developers have secured nearly $10 million in tax credits.

Marcia Bailey, the economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership, said that funding will allow those involved to secure and renovate the old hotel as well as the former elementary schools.

Pollock said in addition to that 12 more apartments or lofts are slated for the downtown area next year, based on conversations with some of those building owners, and 15 more units are expected to be completed by 2023, he added.

“That is the plan right now,” he said, adding that a majority of already completed apartments and lofts are located on the first two blocks of North and South Main Street as well as on Scioto and Miami Streets.

The CEP commissioned a $40,000 study earlier this year to examine the county's current housing situation and what can be done to improve it. The study is expected to be completed by January.

Bill Bean, the mayor of Urbana, told the News-Sun that his city is landlocked and there is not much land available to develop new single family homes. That has prompted the city to look at ways to increase housing by using preexisting structures, especially in downtown.

Pollock said downtown lodging ranges from small apartments to larger multi-story homes situated above store fronts.

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"Unless you tear down one of these buildings, there is not a lot of space to build. This is were a lot of development is going to take place in the future,"Pollock told the News-Sun in November.

The increase in housing has the potential to attract more feet on the streets of downtown Urbana.

Pollock said the overall goal of recent revitalization efforts is to bring more people back into downtown. He said there was decline in the area starting in the 1980s as development efforts in the city were focused on the east side of town.

With some businesses leaving, it left longtime vacancies in those buildings. However, entrepreneurs have since occupied some of those empty store fronts and others have purchased those structures with the purpose of renovating.

Tina Knotts, who owns a bakery on Scioto Street, said more merchants in the area have been meeting with each other over the past two years. She said those conversations are centered around what can be done to bring more attention to the 17 downtown retail shops as well as 11 eateries.

Knotts, who opened Let’s Eat Cake in 2017, said it also gives merchants an opportunity to learn about the different businesses in the area as well as better promote them to potential customers. She said the Urbana Downtown Merchant’s Association had been inactive in the past and now sees an average turnout of 12 to 15 business owners at its monthly meetings.

A former executive director of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, she said efforts to draw more shoppers could include holiday deals, participating in events sponsored by the chamber and other community organizations as well as sprucing up storefronts for the holiday season.

Bailey said an increase in downtown living opportunities and slight bump in the number of shops are signs that people are less hesitant in investing time and resources in the area compared to just five years ago.

“We have ridden out the storm of the (Great Recession). For some, they maybe have extra funding to do it now. They see a reason to invest now. We are seeing more people making those investments compared to five years ago,” she said.

Those projects include opening up shuttered upper stories of some downtown buildings that have stood for more than 150 years as well as bringing those spaces up to code so they can be rented to merchants or potential residents.

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There has been a big push by the city as well as local nonprofits and economic development organizations to draw more attention to those businesses as many face challenges from an increased trend in online shopping, Bailey said.

“The more events we have and the more that people are engaged, it can overcome some of those challenges. We have to create that,” she added. “The other part is that property owners want to see returns on their investments.”

That has prompted the CEP to do an economic strategic plan that is slated for next year. It will look at ways to better market the downtown, attract more dining opportunities and how to help the city in its efforts to create a possible revitalization district within the area.

Bailey said the goal is to have the plan completed by March. She said their are also real estate tax abatement opportunities available that can be used as an incentive for more remodeling projects.

The city also is close to completing a $1.8 million project that aims to make the Monument Square roundabout more pedestrian friendly as well as slow down incoming traffic by adding several new safety features.

A truck apron was added around the center of the roundabout for increased maneuverability, as well as flashers at each of the roundabout’s crosswalks.

Bean said the city will also pave sections of Miami and South Main streets as part of the project. He expects that work to be completed by March.

The Springfield News-Sun has provided extensive coverage of efforts to spur investment and in housing and redevelopment in Clark and Champaign Counties. The paper has covered a recent housing study conducted in Springfield as well efforts to revitalize historic buildings in downtown Urbana.

$1.8M — Approximate cost of a project to make Urbana’s Monument Square roundabout more pedestrian friendly

20 — Number of apartment units slated to be in former Douglas Inn as part of the Legacy Place senior housing project

29- Number of retail shops and eateries in downtown Urbana

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