Visit Monument Square in Urbana and it’s obvious a robust revival of older buildings is well under way.
The formerly-embattled Douglas Hotel is now Legacy Place apartments for people age 55 and over. The dark, boxy old Uhlman’s building is reverting back to a vintage bay window design that opens the upper floors to southern light exposure.
Urban-inspired homeowners have remodeled a few old downtown buildings into private residences and plans are in the works to revitalize several other large, older buildings whose former grandeur and community use are long gone.
Just two blocks north of Monument Square on the east side of North Main Street is the brainchild of one of Champaign County’s aspirational individuals, David Smith.
Known by many as “Dr. Dave” due to his Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and his expertise in aquaculture at his pioneering business Freshwater Farms north of Urbana on U.S. Route 68, Smith is no stranger to taking on big projects that might scare others into oblivion.
He has renovated apartment complexes in newer structures in Urbana and is also a key volunteer in helping to spearhead the renovations of The Gloria Theatre, an ongoing project of GrandWorks Foundation and a key asset to drawing people downtown.
When the pandemic struck two years ago, Smith opted to move his ambitions into a private business enterprise of his own that had been waiting on the back burner for more than 10 years to receive much-needed attention.
Smith owns a three-story building at 219 N. Main St. and also has a long lease option on the upper stories of an adjacent building of the same height and identical front design.
The second and third floors of Smith’s latest development project were part of the Urban Loft Tour about 7 years ago, when tourists had the opportunity to see what the old building looked like before any cleanup. Rotting wallpaper, no electricity, long-abandoned gas fireplaces and lamps and other curiosities projected the eerie vibe of a place that had not been inhabited properly in decades.
Believed to have been constructed in 1885, the building likely experienced its peak use in the early 1900s when professional service providers such as attorneys, real estate agents and hairdressers shared divided office spaces with large common areas linking their office entry doors.
On the building’s third floor, a skylight illuminates these common areas as interior windows in each unit allow the shaft of natural light to flow inside from the central hallway.
The history of the structure’s creation and long-term use is scarce. The last time anyone inhabited the building was likely the 1950s, but those tenants were less than optimal, according to Smith. After that time, the building was essentially vacant until he took on the daunting revival project after the dawn of the new millennium.
Layers of cigar smoke stains around window frames, water damage, vintage posters – Smith has found it all during the renovations.
“We actually paid less for the building than it has cost to repair and replace the walls and ceilings,” Smith mused while looking over the custom renovation plans designed by local architect Sarah (Major) Mackert. Soundproofing between the floors of the building and layers upon layers of roof repairs and upgrades have been costly.
But Smith pointed to sleeves of conduit material he was lucky enough to acquire four years ago, before the crippling supply chain issues that are associated with the pandemic era.
All units have large exterior windows, with the integrity of the window size and shape retained, but now filled in with modern replacement windows and screens.
New electricity capability has been installed in the building and the natural gas feed is fully disconnected.
The goal is to rent each unit, which includes two rooms. Each room in each unit has separate entrances from the common area.
The potential for changing demographics using such spaces is possibly fueled by a new generation that can work remotely, and people seeking a convenient urban vibe with a lower cost of living than in major metro areas.
Smith envisions a live/work use of each space, with a small efficiency apartment in the largest two rooms of each unit, and the second smaller room potentially used for business purposes by creative entrepreneurs.
Ceilings in the building are high, so each unit has an open, airy feeling despite modest square footage on the floor.
Smith said his building is larger than the new Legacy Place Monument Square (formerly the Douglas), which is actually an L-shaped building. Smith’s building is not age-restricted or income-restricted like the three new Legacy Place sites in Urbana.
For such a newly-renovated residential space in the downtown, parking must be within 700 feet “as the crow flies,” Smith said. His plan is to arrange for parking spots to be leased spaces at Steve’s Market & Deli, which is within 700 feet of the building.
“Residents can park right by the grocery, stop in for items they need and then walk home,” Smith said. Kitchens in the units will offers smaller-scale appliances.
Two renovated storefronts at ground level with 14-foot ceilings are also part of the building’s revival. Downtown Nutrition, which opened about two years ago, is in one storefront where Bill’s Flowers was once located. The other storefront is nearly ready for occupancy and the tenant will be able to choose the decor and lighting with a target rent of $850 per month. The available storefront formerly housed Columbia Gas and was later a spot for the Urbana United Methodist Church gatherings.
Live/work units located in the second and third floors of the building will average $950 per month, according to Smith, who is excited about his part in the “revival” of downtown Urbana.
Smith hopes the live/work units will be ready for tenants in a year or so.
Once this project is complete, Smith might get to spend more quality time with his wife, Carol.
“She used to call (the) Gloria the ‘other woman’ in my life,” Smith said, recalling how many hours he spent helping beautify the Gloria Theatre.
Sky’s the limit once the lofts are finished.
Brenda Burns is managing editor of the Urbana Daily Citizen.