A lot of attention has been paid to Lincoln Square lately. Between the mass exodus of Health Alliance employees, the closing of the Spark Museum, and the endless discussion about the old Lincoln Hotel, the City is holding a community forum to learn more about what people want to see from the space, which encompasses a nine block area inclusive of the mall itself, the old Lincoln Hotel, and the parking lots that surround it.

How can this current government be part of recreating it?

The mall is owned by Jim Webster, who has made it clear the mall isn’t for sale right now. He’s done some great things with the place over 15 years, and he deserves respect for that, but now Health Alliance is hightailing it to Southwest Champaign, Art Mart moved to Prospect and Kirby, and the mall’s place as a functional and viable utility has come to judgment.

The City of Urbana should focus on what it owns, which is the parking lots — just about all of the parking lots — that surround the aging mall. And if there is one thing the City of Urbana doesn’t need right now, or into the near future, it’s parking space.

Urbana's Market at the Square — held every Saturday, May through November — is the most vibrant and engaging weekly outdoor activity in a 60 mile radius. It takes place in one of the aforementioned parking lots, at the southeast corner of Vine and Illinois. The lot south of Illinois, nearby public street parking, and the Urbana parking garage are existing parking options that should be able to handle the current Saturday morning traffic. The lot south of Illinois needs to be marked as accessible parking; additional parking needs for nearby businesses can be voiced and addressed during public feedback periods. Though humor us for a moment — allow us, just for this moment, to look beyond some very practical and important details in order to imagine a future version of this space that could change the way we live and appreciate Urbana.

Our immediate suggestion is to let the leases on the south side parking lots expire, and turn them into a fabulous, and well programmed public park. Forget the actual mall itself for the moment. Its future, who owns it, and how it functions within this proposal, will hinge on a decision like this one. We can talk about the actual mall and hotel in a different column.

This park should be designed with its crown jewel — the market — in mind. It should be a park that is seamless with a plaza that can host the Saturday market, but be plenty more the other 7 nights and 6 days of the week.

It should be expansive, from Race to Vine, but with the future in mind, mostly. No cars should be able to drive into it, except for emergencies, or to load and unload for the market or a special event. There should be old growth trees planted, not for us, but for the generations to come. There should be a lot of things to do, for all kinds of people. There should be an interesting playground for families with children. There should be a dog park for people with dogs. There should be a public fitness space that encourages calisthenics. There should be walking paths that lead you in and out of the park. There should be sculptures and odd bits of artistic engagement throughout. There should be a plaza, that hosts the market, but that can be most anything at any time that isn’t 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, which is to say the Market at the Square should stay open later in the day moving forward. This should be a place where people can play and vendors can set up and sell wares or food, on any particular day. There should be a lot public seating, everywhere. Benches should be prevalent along the walkways, which should be landscaped with perennials like hostas and flowers of various kinds for easy maintenance. Tables should have chessboard tabletops. Add in a few concrete ping pong tables, or a horseshoe pit. Make the game pieces available to borrow from an info kiosk. Play or don’t, but have the option.

It should be programmed, and maintained, through both tax dollars and sustainable corporate and private donations. We aren’t claiming this would be simple. But the role of government is to identify challenging issues and find solutions — and the money — to create a vibrant community. If there’s something we think we can all agree on, it’s that we need more community in our community. 

Hence: Mayor Marlin’s Vision Quest to reimagine Lincoln Square and The Historic Lincoln Hotel. Retail business and traditional office space as we once knew are never going to come back. They have little to no value in an economy that is increasingly online and mobile, which is the kind of community we’re promoting ourselves as, right?

Considerations for the success stories that surround the area can be made. Common Ground Food Co-op and the parking that sits directly in front of it should be not only preserved, but invested in. We can discuss the hotel another time, as there are ways to make it viable, and without a corporate behemoth brand asking us all for far too much money. There’s certainly more to discuss, but for now, it is our assessment that Urbana should make an incredible public park and plaza out of what will be empty parking lots for years to come.

We own the lots. The community deserves something beautiful. And when you give people beauty in centrally located places, they arrive.

Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.

Photos by Jessica Hammie and Seth Fein