Market Place Mall
Updated: Jan 14
In 1976, Market Place Mall opened less than one mile from Downtown Champaign. Its construction stirred controversy and uncertainty across the twin cities. When it was complete, Market Place Mall completely changed the way we shop and altered the built environment of Champaign County forever.
Market Place Mall
Owner: Landau, Heyman & Clay
Architect: Finch, Stowell, and Frolichstein
Builder: Inland-Robbins Construction, Inc.
Something All Together Different
On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. This bill did more than transform the way American's travel, it set off massive speculation in the retail industry as a car crazed public was looking for more convenience away from the compact city centers of the United States.
Four years later, on Tuesday, October 4, 1960, Illinois Governor William Stratton (below) joined local dignitaries, mayors, and even Chief Illiniwek, to dedicate Illinois' first interstate highway segment between Champaign and Danville.
The concept of large regional malls began emerging in the post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s as communities began encouraging large shopping centers with plentiful parking to satisfy America's growing suburban population. Many times these shopping center developments were direct results of declining downtowns and changing shopping patterns.
By the 1950s, many of the oldest commercial structures in Downtown Champaign were approaching 100 years old. At the same time, the compact design of Downtown was in direct conflict with the increasing size of modern automobiles. Throughout this decade, the City Council grappled with growing Downtown congestion. City Councilman and Public Health and Safety Commissioner Paul Tangora were tasked with alleviating congestion in the core of the City. His plans included changing Randolph, State, Neil, and Walnut Streets to one-way streets in 1955. Also, he oversaw the elimination of double parking and removal of parking meters to increase the number of travel lanes necessary to accommodate the increased traffic of shoppers and workers.
The aerial of Downtown Champaign (above) in 1955 shows the city center near its peak development as nearly every lot was filled with an income-producing business, and almost all available parking was located on-street. At this time, Downtown featured most of the major department stores in Champaign County, including Robeson’s, Sears, Jos. Kuhn and Company, Willis Department Store, Grants, Kaufman's, and W. Lewis Department Store. In 1961 J.C. Penny's joined the group by replacing The Willis Department Store at 15 Main Street.
Country Fair Shopping Center Changes Everything
On September 15, 1955, plans were announced for a brand new suburban shopping center to be constructed on a plot of land owned by Hattie Kaufman on the far west end of Champaign at the intersection of Springfield Avenue (Illinois Route 10) and the newly widened Mattis Avenue.
The area was primed for development with a future Interstate 57 exit planned just to the west of the land. The $3,000,000 Country fair Shopping Center was initiated by Downtown department store owner Stanley Kaufman in partnership with Cain and Calhane Inc. of Chicago.
On September 28, 1959, Country Fair Shopping Center was opened to great fanfare.
The center offered more than 2,000 parking spaces, air conditioning, and featured major anchors, including Kaufman’s second store, Goldblatt’s, Eisners, Grayson's, and Kresge's.
The opening of Country Fair Shopping Center signaled a dramatic shift in shopping habits and caused concern in both Downtown Champaign and Downtown Urbana.
Urbana Counters With Urban Renewal Project
Shortly after the opening of Country Fair, Urbana Mayor Stanley Weaver announced that a massive four-phase urban renewal project was beginning to take shape in Downtown Urbana. The project was being planned and designed by renowned shopping center architect Victor Gruen. In 1956, Gruen designed the nation’s first indoor shopping center in Edina, Minnesota. The initial phase of the four-part plan included the acquisition of nine-blocks south of the Champaign County Courthouse. The City announced plans to vacate streets, widen peripheral roads, raze buildings, and bond for the construction of new surface parking lots and meters. In 1961, final approvals were granted, and design work began on the project.
The new mall was owned by the Urbana Central Development Co, a subsidiary of the Chicago based national retailer Carson Pirie Scott. Carson's intended to be the largest department store in Champaign County. The mall was built by Fuller Construction Company.
On September 17, 1964, Lincoln Square Mall opened in Downtown Urbana with 118,000 square feet of air-conditioned retail under one roof. Twenty-four retailers opened their doors as part of the initial phase.
The final three phases of the development failed to materialized. Phase 2 was intended to close Main Street, between Race and Vine Street. It would have also expanded the mall to include a new department store (Likely Montgomery Wards). Also under consideration was construction of a civic center, theater, and high-rise office towers.
Plans for Market Place Quietly Come Together
By late 1968, rumors began to swirl that land was being purchased just north of the Neil Street exit along Interstate 74, seen below in this 1969 aerial.
On October 24, 1969, Landau and Heyman Inc. released their Market Place Mall Market Study and confirmed what many had suspected that Market Place Mall was likely to happen less than half a mile from Downtown Champaign.
Growing Concern in Downtown Champaign
Once the announcement was made that developers were considering a new shopping center near the new interstate, speculation grew that its new anchor tenant would be Sears. Landau and Heyman had been quietly approaching Downtown department stores seeking new anchors for the two planned wings at the Mall. At this time, Sears was the largest retailer in the United States, and beginning in 1959, the company launched a nationwide shift away from city centers to regional shopping centers, making them a prime target for the new developers.
Since November 17, 1928, Sears had been an anchor of Downtown Champaign. The store had moved several times (including the location above on Main Street just east of Walnut Street) but eventually moved to Hickory Street, just south of the Orpheum Theater, where it occupied five adjoining buildings and consolidated into one department store.
Great efforts were made to ensure department stores remained in Downtown, including the purchase and demolition of several blocks to create new off-street parking lots. In 1968, the triangular block bound by Neil, Washington, and Hickory Streets was purchased as well as a large portion of the block to the west bounded by Neil, Church, Randolph and Hill Streets.
These entire blocks were razed between 1969 and1970 to add 475 parking spaces.
This was the start of a trend to demolish downtown buildings to construct surface parking. By the time this trend subsided in the 2000s, over 60 buildings would be lost.
On February 8, 1973, Sears confirmed it was leaving Downtown Champaign for the proposed Market Place Mall.
At the time of the store’s announcement, Sears accounted for approximately $7-8 million in sales of the estimated $24-30 million in all Downtown.
The new Sears store was 100,000 square feet and employed 400 people. The store had 45 individual departments under one roof including a 13 bay automotive department. The store also utilized a brand new state-of-the-art computerized check-out and cataloging system.
Sears opened five months before the full mall opened in October 1975.
A Bold Plan for Downtown Champaign
At the same time that the Hickory Street block fell, broader plans were being discussed by Downtown leaders to follow Urbana's model and transform Downtown itself into a fully enclosed mall. The Champaign Development Corporationunveiled the master plan in September 1969.
The plans called for encapsulating the streets and sidewalks within a new structure to provide a climate-controlled environment throughout Downtown. It also called for the development of massive parking structures that covered portions of University Avenue and Randolph Street along with a high-rise office tower.
The plan called for a new mall, "Champaign Circle," and centered on the intersection of Neil Street and Park Streets. A series of skywalks would connect the parking with the mall.
Neil Street is depicted above, looking north from Chester Street. This location, right across the street from the City Building, would have been one of the primary entrances.
The intersection of Neil, Park, and Taylor Street was designed to be the center court (see below). The "Circle" would be a two-story, highly landscaped area with a large glass dome.
The plan went further to illustrate the desired traffic plan necessary to facilitate development. Under this plan, Chestnut Street would have been extended north, along with a one way Walnut Street to create an interstate-like system that merged with Neil and Market Streets. This series of ramps and flyovers would have loomed over a large area of north Downtown. The plan also called for Park Street to become the major one-way couple with University Avenue.
These plans represented a massive transformation of Downtown, and while the designers highlighted their desire to preserve existing buildings, the plan would have forever changed the fabric of Downtown.
The grand plans evenutally faded away, but a few years later, the merchants of Downtown revived a scaled-down version of the Champaign Circle Mall central concept and pushed for the City of Champaign to build a new open-air Neil Street Pedestrian mall to help compete with Market Place Mall.
The Downtown Champaign Mall opened on May 2, 1975, just months before Sears left Downtown for Market Place.
Opposition to Market Place Grows
Shortly after the mall's announcement, a local group of environmentalists, frustrated by the outward growth of the City for retail expansion, announced the formation of the group Preserve our Land and Neighborhoods (PLAN). The group was organized by the University of Illinois professors Jack Paxton and Bruce Hannon. They aimed to grow support for a boycott of Market Place Mall to dissuade retailers from locating at the mall and redirecting focus on rebuilding Downtown Champaign.
Ultimately, the efforts of the group failed to convince shoppers to boycott any of the suburban shopping centers. However, it should be noted that during the 1970s and 1980s, the City of Champaign began a move toward stronger city planning and eventually created a Planning Department. This shift has resulted in much more compact and efficient growth patterns, more robust comprehensive planning, and, ultimately a renewed focus on the preservation and revitalization of Downtown Champaign.
Work Begins on Market Place Mall
Construction began on the new Market Place Mall in October 1973.
Market Place (above) was situated just north of Interstate 74 along an uncompleted section of Neil Street. Downtown can be seen at the top of the image.
Landau, Heyman & Clay selected Harry Rockwood (above) to be the General Manager of Market Place. Rockwood was 55 years old and moved to Champaign from Lake County, Illinois. He brought extensive shopping center management experience from Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. The local leasing manager was Lyle Shelor, and Donald Darko was named Assistant Manager.
A Last Minute Issue
Just as Sears was planning to open their store five months before the rest of the mall, a problem developed that threatened the annexation of the mall to the City of Champaign. The problem was the mall owners were arguing the City's existing sign regulations didn't fit the needed signage for the new mall. They argued that without a change, they would have to reconsider their position to annex to the City and therefore remain in the County and forgo City sales tax.
Ultimately, the City Council gave their approval for a change to the City's sign code. Only one Councilwoman voted in opposition, future Mayor of Champaign Joan Severns.
The Grand Opening Arrives
On March 17, 1976, Market Place Mall officially opened with a ribbon cutting in center court followed by smaller ribbon-cuttings at Bergner's and Osco's.
The ribbon was cut by selected women's clubs and organizations within the six-county shopping area covered by the mall. Also in attendance was Miss Illinois 1976 Jean Waters of Tuscola, Champaign Mayor William Bland, Market Place Manager Harry Rockwood, and President of Landau and Heyman Inc. Herbert Heyman. Music was provided by Champaign Centennial High School and Champaign Central High School Marching Bands. Also, present that day were a dozen protesters from PLAN. They held signs and distributed literature inside the mall protesting the use of agriculture land for major commercial development and its possible effects of Downtown deterioration. They were met with resistance by the eager shoppers and the tradesman that helped construct the mall.
The first stores in Market Place mall were:
Savings and Loan
Bachrach's Men's Wear
Worth's Women Wear
Unique Shoppe Gifts
Sholem's Good Shoes
Air Step Women's Shoes
Oil and Reflections
The Tinder Box
Friendly Ice Cream Restaurant
Orange Bowl Snacks
The Bottom Half
Thomas McAn Shoes
Circus World Toys
The Little Folks
Fannie May Candy
Barker Women's Shoes
Redwood and Ross Men's Wear
Bresslers Ice Cream
Carousel Snack Bar
Seno Formal Wear
B. Dalton Booksellers
J.C. Penney's Moves From Downtown Champaign
On April 3, 1978, J.C. Penney's announced they would join Sears in leaving their Downtown department store at 15 Main Street. The move prompted the construction of a third wing (North) to Market Place Mall. The estimated cost of the wing was $7,000,000, and it opened in October 1979.
At the same time, as the J.C. Penney's wing construction, additional development started to emerge around the mall to take advantage of the increased traffic generation along North Neil Street. The La Quinta Motor Hotel (seen above) was completed at this time, along with a few smaller restaurants and retailers.
By the 1990s (aerial below), the entire North Neil corridor had been firmly established with the addition of Venture (later Kay's Merchandise) Kohl's, Toys R' Us, and many others. Also, at this time, many new big box stores began emerging along the competing Prospect Avenue corridor. The mall was starting to see its first real competition. These stores included Wal-Mart, Target (relocated from the Country Fair area), and Meijer
Final Downtown Department Store Falls
On February 17, 1990, Robeson's Department store closed its doors for the final time. The store that first opened in 1874 and grew to be Downtown's strongest and longest lasting department store couldn't sustain itself amidst the changing times. The video segment below was nationally broadcast on CBS and featured Champaign native Bill Geist. He summarizes much of the local sentiment around the stores closing but also provides a glimpse into the changing trends of the day with video from inside Market Place Mall.
Final Wing Under Development
To combat the growing competition from Prospect Avenue, in 1998, mall owners General Growth Properties of Chicago announced plans for a significant renovation and expansion of the mall. The project included a complete updating of the interior corridor spaces to reflect a "Tuscan theme."
The plans also called for a new food court and glass-enclosed pavilion that would feature a new indoor carousel.
The new center court was designed to mimic a traditional downtown.
An additional 100,000 square foot anchor was added as the fourth and final wing for St. Louis based Famous Barr. With the fourth wing completed, the mall's original plan was finally realized.
In 2005, Market Place underwent another improvement with the completion of "The Courtyard." This new addition allowed for an inside and outside entrance for select store stores.
Three years later, the great recession began and set retail on yet another changing course.
Sears' Collapse and New Opportunities
In January 2014, the mall's initial anchor tenant, Sears, was unable to adjust to changing retail climates and closed its doors as part of a nationwide collapse of the company. The original store that opened with more than 400 employees and 45 departments under one roof closed with just 56 employees. The loss of a primary anchor in the age of online sales left a question mark for the future of the space.
On March 3, 2015, General Growth Properties announced they would raze the recently purchased Sears wing and replace it with a new Dick's Sporting Goods and new concept Field and Stream store.
Both stores opened on Thursday, October 8, 2015.
On February 5, 2018, Bon-Ton Stores announced the company was entering Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. On August 28, 2018, General Growth Properties completed a $15 Billion nationwide sale of their entire portfolio of malls to Brookfield Properties. The deal included Market Place Mall. The following day Bergner's closed its original Market Place anchor.
The anchor store, completed in 1976, was vacant for the first time.
On July 10, 2019, Champaign City Council gave final approval for a $2.75 million financial incentive for the construction of a new Costco Wholesale store to occupy the footprint of the original Bergner's wing. Demolition began on the Bergner's wing in December 2019. Not only was the Bergner's store razed, but portions of the western mall corridor were demolished as well, shrinking the overall size of the mall.
Evolving with the Times
Just as Downtown in the 1970s was forced to change with the evolving retail trends, Market Place Mall now finds itself in the same position. With the increasing share of sales taking place online, American's are increasingly turning their backs on shopping malls. However, Market Place has continued to evolve and change with the times just like it's old competitor, downtown. Only time will tell if the mall has a place in the retail economy in another 50 years.
Photographs courtesy of the Champaign County History Museum, Champaign County Archives at the Urbana Free Library, City of Champaign, News-Gazette, General Growth Properties, T.J. Blakeman, Adam Smith.