"Things are looking up" for the heart of downtown Urbana

“Things are looking up” for the heart of downtown Urbana

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Record Swap owner Bob Diener at his Lincoln Square store in Urbana says his business has improved threefold since he moved it to the Race Street mall just before the pandemic hit in beginning of 2020.

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URBANA — With the long-awaited revival of the historic downtown Urbana hotel seemingly imminent, officials are excited to see the economic benefits it can bring to the rest of the city.

The owner, manager and businesses of the adjoining Lincoln Square Mall are also encouraged to see their companion in the heart of Urbana come to life.

“The hotel is nearing completion in the not-too-distant future, so we see a lot of positives,” Lincoln Square Mall owner Jim Webster said. “We could develop more tenants who will have a sort of symbiotic relationship with the hotel.

“I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to play out, but I think it’s going to help foot traffic, and also help our food court.”


A 1924 photo of the original Urbana-Lincoln Hotel, soon to become the Royer Hotel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll, with stay-at-home orders and security issues reducing revenues for mall tenants and supply chain disruptions delaying shipments of critical hotel equipment.

Just ahead of the holiday shopping season, Lincoln Square tenants reported improving sales numbers and foot traffic, and at least two businesses will soon be added to the mall’s repertoire.

And Urbana City Council will likely grant a second extension to the construction deadline for the Royer Hotel, giving developers until August 31, 2023 to complete the renovation of the former Urbana-Lincoln and Landmark Hotel.


A 2020 aerial view of the Lincoln Square Mall in the center and the adjoining Urbana Landmark Hotel in its upper right corner.

The board is due to vote on the amended deal on Monday, but indicated broad support at its last meeting.

“It’s an especially wonderful time, to see how close we are to realizing this vision and returning this hotel to the destination it was,” Mayor Diane Marlin told the committee last Monday. the meeting.

The city has pledged to fund $5.5 million of the hotel through a bond and plans to repay it through financing through property tax increases, local taxes and a hotel tax. / motels which will soon be created.

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Shoppers at the Idea Store in Lincoln Square in Urbana on Thursday, November 17, 2022.

The bond will not be issued until the hotel has obtained its certificate of occupancy, full funding for the cost of the project, and final approval for the hotel to be part of the Tapestry collection of Hilton.

The city has already been burned down in this area – the hotel’s former owner, Xiao Jin Yuan, had to return $1 million in TIF funds to Urbana after he failed to reopen the restaurant and shopping center. hotel conference.

“I’m very proud of this deal because one of our goals in negotiating this deal was to protect as much public investment in this project as possible,” Marlin said.

Hotel Royer updated

A recent photo of the new Hôtel Royer signage.

“It’s like a little time capsule”

Lincoln Square Mall was not Record Swap’s first choice for a new location after moving from Race Street to Urbana. But it will likely be his final resting place, said 42-year-old owner Bob Diener.

“Business has been really good for us since we moved here,” Diener said, roughly tripling Race Street’s revenue. “I think it’s foot traffic, and a lot more people see us. Everyone knows who we are. »

He snuck in just months before the pandemic hit, and the shutdown wasn’t too difficult: Diener said the stay-at-home order gave plenty of time to move around the rest of his folders.

When the pandemic took hold, “we didn’t really lose any tenants, so to speak,” mall owner Webster said. “But it definitely affected sales. Now we sign quite a few leases. I would say things are looking up.

Two companies – Casablanca Bazar, which sells Moroccan products, and Volo Internet and Tech – will open their malls in early December, he said. Three of the remaining four spaces have significant interest and leases “are likely to occur,” manager Hannah Smith said.

Lincoln Square is undergoing its own upgrades, redoing the entrances with additional lighting, adding stairs, and installing a new elevator. Next step: more public messages.

“The social media thing that we’re really developing, we hope will result in more Island University students becoming aware of the mall. This is one of our target groups,” Webster said. “Improving communication is the goal.”

Sid Veeravalli, a senior at the University of Illinois, agrees targeted marketing could do the mall some good.

“Even on weekends it’s busier than normal, but not as busy as it could be,” Veeravalli said. “Much of the advertising is by word of mouth.”

Veeravalli, who is in UI art and design school, said he visits the Urbana mall about every two weeks, mostly for supplies from the Art Coop and IDEA Store.

“It’s good here; it’s like a little time capsule,” he said. “It’s a good place to find inspiration.”

The IDEA store, a nonprofit arts and crafts outlet with donated supplies, just had one of its best sales months ever, assistant manager Sarah Meadows said. The store moved to Lincoln Square about four years ago after separating from the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation.

“Business is back to pre-COVID levels for sure,” she said.

“I would like to see more first-floor outlets here,” Diener of Record Swap said. “I’ve been telling Jim for years. This is not your traditional mall; I think he has great potential. »

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Idea Store assistant manager Sarah Meadows, right, talks about her Lincoln Square location in Urbana, left.

“Generating Memories”

The past 20 years have brought nothing but ownership changes and problems to the former Urbana-Lincoln Hotel, which opened in 1923.

“This hotel was an iconic part of downtown for the past 100 years, for good or ill. It was always there and always a topic of conversation,” Marlin said.

The hotel was purchased by Carson Pirie Scott & Co. in 1965, then sold to the Jumer Hotel chain in the 1970s and went through various owners in the 2000s.

Former owner Yuan put the Landmark Hotel up for sale in 2015 and closed it in 2016. Several bidders filed bids and pulled out in the late 2010s, after failing to reach deals with the city on the amount of tax incentives they would receive to renovate it.

In 2020, Crystal Lake-based Icon Hospitality purchased the property. He later promised to rename the building the Hotel Royer after prolific Urbana architect Joseph Royer, who designed the hotel, Urbana High School, the Champaign County Courthouse, the Urbana Country Club and the old Lincoln Lodge, among others.

Until its decline, Marlin said, the hotel “was where people went to celebrate the best days of their lives” – weddings, honeymoons and birthdays, anniversaries, proms and graduations.

“There are generations of memories here, and when we tried to find a developer to take on this project, one of the things we pointed out is that there is a lot of personal interest in this building,” said she declared.

The road to reopening has not been easy. Working on a building approaching its 100th anniversary, “you run into all kinds of problems,” said Joseph Prior, who oversees hotel operations for Marquis Ventures and Icon Hospitality. “When you have a hotel that has just been installed and you try to overhaul it, it is very difficult. Everything is broken.


A recent photo of the new Hôtel Royer signage.

That’s part of why the city’s investment is so critical, Prior said. Previous estimates on the renovation have ranged from $15 million to $20 million.

“We don’t know what the final price will be,” he said. “We keep opening walls and keep finding things.”

Delayed shipment times for equipment, such as hot water systems and rooftop HVAC units, were the reason for Icon Hospitality’s most recent expansion request.

“All delivery times were in the order of a few weeks; now we’re talking months, if the equipment exists or is available,” Prior said.

The progress of the Hôtel Royer is now visible to the naked eye. Demolition is nearly complete, all 131 rooms are almost fully plumbed and electrical, and developers are in the final stages of repairing the parking lot and finishing exterior details, Prior said.

The panels are in place and the original 1923 building is now lined with dark brown trim. The 1982 addition has a lighter tan around its edges.

Many of the memorable qualities of the hotel’s interior, such as the grand ballroom’s parquet floor and its chandeliers, will remain. But the swimming pool will be redone and the rooms will be brought up to modern standards.

The eight-month extension is just to be sure, Prior said: The developers are aiming for a May 2023 opening date.

Alderman James Quisenberry was not spared the biggest refurbishment ever undertaken by the hotel, wrapping up its centenary.

“I’ve lived in this community since 1989, I certainly have a lot of memories of big events and dinners and get-togethers at this hotel,” he said. “I can’t wait for it to be part of the core of Urbana again, where events happen, where people gather, where people celebrate.”

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