Kathy’s #Mailbag, Sept. 15, 2023

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What was there before Sweet Basil Cafe? Who’s going to clean up the Dart property in Urbana? Why is the I-57/74 project taking so long? When is artwork coming back to Champaign’s Porter Park? So many questions, so many answers in this week’s stuffed ‘Bag:


Kathy Reiser/The News-Gazette

TGI Fridays

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The News-Gazette

NOW & THEN: Sweet Basil Café

The long-awaited Sweet Basil Café opened at 103 W. Marketview Dr. in Champaign in August 2022.

Built in 1984, the restaurant originally housed Chi-Chi’s — “home of the chimichanga” — for about 15 years. Chevy’s Fresh Mex, another favorite for office parties and family celebrations, took over the space from about 1999 through 2011. TGI Friday’s opened at this location in 2012 and closed in 2020. Prior to that, Friday’s was near the corner of Neil and Kirby — where Baxter’s American Grille is today.

Check out The News-Gazette’s Facebook and Instagram feeds on Monday, when we’ll post a picture of next week’s Now & Then building.

08262023   dart  3

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Dart in Urbana on Friday, August 25, 2023.

Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

City’s plans for Dart property

“Will the city be eminent-domaining the closed DART Container factory and deduct clean-up and tear-down costs of the factory before it changes hands and the city is left with the clean-up bill?”

The closure announcement was made in late August, and Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said last week that it’s “too early to comment” on what the next steps might be for the factory. It is expected to close by the end of the calendar year.


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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Supports for new interstate ‘flyover’

“I’m sure the overhead supports for the bridge for the new I-74/I-57 interchange are built to code, but the one support that stands in the middle of I-74 that connects 74 to 57 south looks really thin on the end compared to all the rest of them. What can you find out about that?”

IDOT engineer Kensil Garnett says that particular overhead support is thinner by design on one end to maintain the vertical clearance that is required over the roadway.

Meat lab

University of Illinois Meat Science Lab/provided

When will UI Meat Salesroom reopen?

“Can you find out if the UI Meat Sciences Lab’s salesroom is ever going to reopen? I really miss their meat! When I drove by there today, the place looks abandoned.”

This question came in about a week ago. I posed it to staff in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and … boom! Just like that, they announced they’d be reopening for the fall semester on Thursday.

ACES assistant dean Jenny Larson said “the salesroom has been working hard to train new staff and prepare for this fall and they cannot wait to see their customers again soon.”

Why is highway intersection so dark?

“Why is there no street light/pole at the intersection of state highways 47 and 10 south of Mahomet? Lived here over 20 years and wonder about that every time I’m traveling on Route 10 and have to slow down to find the corner with Highway 47 in the dark.”

IDOT engineer Kensil Garnett tells us the department follows the lighting guidelines published by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program. “The established warrants have not been met at this intersection and the intersection of Illinois Route 10 and Illinois Route 47 … is currently in the minimal safety tier in the most recent analysis by the Bureau of Safety Engineering.”

A variety of factors including traffic volumes (both vehicular and pedestrian), roadway geometry, turning movements and visibility along with statistical safety performance are used to determine the need for rural intersection lighting, he said.

“While these warrants are reviewed during the planning phase of each project that encompasses the area, the other signage, striping and geometric features that are in place will continue to be maintained by the department.”


Kathy Reiser/The News-Gazette

KR.Mailbag.NEW.FlamencoRevisited copy.jpg


KR.Mailbag.NEW.SpiralToTheGate copy.jpg


Missing the art in Porter Family Park

“In Porter Park there used to be two large pieces of art. I thought they were damaged by storms and maybe sent off to be repaired, but it’s been a couple years now and they’re still not back. Do you know if the park district plans to return/replace the pieces?”

Champaign Park District Executive director Sarah Sandquist says the two sculptures at Porter Family Park were Spiral to the Gate made of painted aluminum by Ray Katz, and Flamenco Revisited made of painted steel by Ruth Aizuss Migdal.

As visitors drove into the parking lot, Spiral to the Gate was on the right side by the pine tree grove from 2015 through 2018. Flamenco Revisited was at the southwest corner of the park toward the intersection of Windsor and Rising roads from 2016 through 2020.

“The large, red Flamenco Revisited did in fact suffer wind damage, but Spiral to the Gate was never damaged,” Sandquist said. “Both pieces were leased through the Public Art League, which is now part of the 40N|88W Champaign County Arts Council. Once their leases expired the artists removed the temporary display. Flamenco Revisited was removed a few months before its lease expired on account of the wind damage.”

So … there are currently two vacant concrete bases for artwork. “The park district is working with 40N|88W to bring sculpture back to Porter Family Park; please stay tuned. In the meantime, a few of Ruth Aizuss Migdal’s various pieces remain in Champaign, and visit Hessel Park to enjoy Kwami by Ray Katz!”

She said CPD enjoys a long-standing partnership with the Public Art League and the 40N|88W Arts Council, “where we team up to sponsor and display a number of sculptures throughout our parks. Some pieces are owned by the park district and more than a few are under temporary lease, just like Flamenco Revisited and Spiral to the Gate were at Porter Family Park. Please visit the ‘Art In The Park’ section of the park district’s website for more information.”


Champaign County Forest Preserve District/provided


Hollow trunk near Buffalo Trace Trail

“There is a large hollow section of a tree trunk at the west end of the Buffalo Trace bike trail. What is its story? Where did they find it?”

Champaign County Forest Preserve District director Lorrie Pearson calls this “a wonderful story demonstrating collaboration with our neighbors and the creativity of our dedicated volunteers.”

The owner of a farm near Buffalo Trace stumbled upon the hollow log during his land-clearing work in the winter. The log, with a scorched interior, was rumored to have been ignited by a tossed cigarette years ago.

“The owner initially planned to burn the log with other brush. Two Forest Preserve volunteers, Jeff Butcher and Larry Uphoff, thought the scorched stump of a sycamore tree could be a great addition to Buffalo Trace for visitors to enjoy and left the owner a note inquiring about the logs. The owner did not initially see the note and set the burn pile aflame. Thankfully, he found the note before it was too late and the Cornbelt Fire Department saved the logs from destruction,” Pearson said.

Forest Preserves Garden and Trails Supervisor Michael Dale learned of the scorched logs “and worked with volunteers Jeff and Larry to place the first log at the western entrance of Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve’s Buffalo Trace.

“A second log segment is also available and awaiting placement. This story reminds us of the surprises nature has in store and the connections we have with the land and with each other,” Pearson said.

Visitors may see the unique hollow log at the west end of Buffalo Trace, near the head of the bike path off of Crowley Road in Mahomet.

08162023  I-74 north ramp

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The ramp from Interstate 74 west to Interstate 57 north, seen Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, will close Thursday night, Aug. 17, 2023, through December 2025 as part of a project to replace the interchange.

Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Why must I-74 to I-57 ramp closure take so long?

“I read in the paper last month that the westbound I-74 ramp to northbound I-57 closure is expected to take 28 months — in part, to allow soil to settle on new embankments. Why does that process take so long?”

Ironically, farmers work hard to avoid compacting their soil. But when that soil and a whole lot of fill are turned into a brand-new Interstate highway ramp, compaction is exactly what’s needed to ensure the stability of the new embankment.

“The existing ground where the new embankments will be constructed was farm ground previously that has never been loaded,” explains IDOT engineer Kensil Garnett. “The embankment placed on the existing ground weighs between 100 and 120 pounds per cubic foot and in some areas the contractor is placing over 40 feet of fill. One (1) square foot of the existing ground could have as much as 4,800 pounds of weight placed on it and the ground will settle under this weight.

“The existing ground was sampled and tested, and the time estimated to complete the settlement period is between 18 and 24 months.”


Kathy Reiser/The News-Gazette

Why are school bus roofs white?

“We all know that school buses are painted ‘school bus yellow.’ But I’ve noticed that the roofs of most school buses in Champaign-Urbana are painted white. Why?”

AmericanBusSales.net has a good explanation on its website: “The white roofs on modern buses have grown in popularity as a simple and effective means of keeping buses cooler during the hottest months of the year. Just about every person who rode the bus to the school in the summer can remember hot, sweaty trips and the feeling of the bus seat sticking to your skin.”

Ohhh, yeah. And on days when you wore shorts to school…? Ouch! It felt like you lost three layers of skin when you stood up to get off the bus.

“Air conditioning helps, but it can only do so much on a hot summer afternoon. One study found that painting the tops of buses white made the interior temperature drop an average of 10 degrees during the summer, with as much as a 17-degree difference during the warmest hours. Plus, there was little effect during the winter, as the bus was only 3 to 4 degrees cooler.”

These were the results from pilot program in North Carolina in the 1990s. They also found that the white roofs – and thus, cooler temps – may help keep young passengers calmer and well-behaved.

In addition, the two-tone buses with white roofs “make the vehicles easier to spot and anything that keeps children safer is undoubtedly positive. During early pilot programs using white roofing on buses, participating schools received a number of calls specifically noting that the buses were easier to see,” the bus company’s web posting said.


Former UI apple orchard

“What’s the story on the former UI apple orchard at the SW corner of Windsor and Philo Roads in Urbana? There appears to be at least a half-dozen old, rusty buildings there and a few rows of overgrown apple trees.”

A caller posed that question when I was Brian Barnhart’s guest on WDWS Radio’s “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” Another listener followed up to tell us the property belongs to Dr. Lo.

I had thought the land might still belong to the university, but it does not. Champaign County property tax records show it is owned by the Atsa Trust of Champaign, and the bills are sent to the attention of Alexander C. Lo in Savoy. If you’re someone who pores over plat books as I do, you’ll recognize both the Atsa Trust and members of the Lo family as owners of many tracts of farmland in central Champaign County, close to Champaign-Urbana.

Boot heel

Wikimedia Commons

The story of Vermilion County’s “boot heel”

“If you look at a map of Vermilion County, it shows a small ‘boot heel’ that’s surrounded on three sides by Edgar County. I’ve heard that old Indian boundaries may be the reason for that. What can you find out?”

Sue Richter, director of the Vermilion County Museum, was able to point me in the right direction. In the 1940 book, Stories of Historical Days in Vermilion County, Illinois, county school superintendent L.A. Tuggle wrote that this irregular piece of land at the bottom of Elwood Township was called “Harrison’s Purchase.”

“The Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, concluded a treaty with the Kickapoos, Delawares, Pottowatomies, Miamis and the Eel River Indians at Fort Wayne, Indiana, September 30, 1809. He came to locate the new possession and met the selected Indians at a certain rock in a grove east of Ridgefarm” — the area known as Pilot Grove, the only grove of trees in that part of the country.

The lines that give the bootheel its east and west boundaries extended south- and southeastward from that specific rock in Pilot Grove. “The Indians did not know how to use a compass, so they stipulated that the line bounding the east side of the land should run in the direction of the sun at 10 o’clock in the morning,” on a certain day of the year, “and that the boundary of the western line should run in the direction of the sun at one o’clock in the afternoon” on that same day, Tuggle wrote.

“It was agreed between General Harrison and the Indians that all of the land which fell within the boundary of the extent of a man riding horseback for two and one-half days would be included in this purchase. The grove from which the riders started was used as a pilot on their return trip, and for that reason was called Pilot Grove.”

Which still doesn’t tell us why the boot heel is part of present-day Vermilion County, and not part of Edgar County. The county’s current borders were In her 1911 History of Vermilion County, Illinois, Lottie Jones says “the part of the treaty land that belongs to Elwood township extends one-half mile below the southern boundary of the township, running parallel with the southern boundary. Just why this extension into Edgar County, has not been explained.”

So I guess it remains a mystery, unless a reader can provide credible documentation about the reasons why the boot heel remained a part of Vermilion County when the county’s boundaries were finalized in 1859. 


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Kathy Reiser/The News-Gazette

Film photography alive and well in Urbana

“As I walked past the Courier Café, I noticed a sign for the Urbana Museum of Photography that seems to occupy the second floor of the building. Is this new?”

Not new at all; just one of those “best-kept secret” things about our community. Anna Longworth, the museum’s lab tech, says founder Lyosha Svinarski opened UMoP in 2012. “He had the darkroom in a couple locations before he landed above the Courier Cafe in the original darkroom for the Courier Newspaper in 2017.”

She said the darkroom operates “mainly as a lab: developing film, making silver gelatin darkroom prints, and digitizing film via digital scanning. The museum portion of our business has taken a bit of a back seat as our lab has become busier — film is making quite the comeback! — but we have exhibits from time to time.”

The current exhibit on the walls, “Old News,” is from last year. “Lyosha is especially interested in revitalizing old negatives whether they have been stored in a library archive or have been found by somebody’s grandchild wanting to see what is on them from decades ago. Additionally, he teaches classes on shooting film, developing film and darkroom printing.

“I am particularly interested in engaging younger generations in the magic of analog photography and its processes,” Longworth said. “In a world of thousands of photos thrown at us constantly, a never-ending iPhone camera roll, and new digital cameras coming out what seems like monthly, there is something special about the process of making photos on film. It is slower and less conventional, but much more rewarding — in my opinion.”

She said the lab processes both color and black-and-white film, and offers custom silver gelatin prints. “For those that don’t know what that is, it means we take a negative and place it under an enlarger on light-sensitive photo paper — in the dark with only a red light — and expose the paper for a certain amount of time depending on the negative. We then put it through the chemistry — developer, stop bath, fixer, wash — and then the image comes to life! It is a special process that we believe digital photos can’t duplicate.”

Longworth said the museum/lab doesn’t have regular hours per se, but staff are always happy to give tours to anyone who’s interested in seeing what they’re about “or chatting about anything analog photography.” Find out more at urbanamuseumofphotography.com.

savoy fire

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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Why mutual-aid agreements are so different

“When Champaign Police need help, it usually comes from UIPD or Urbana. But when fire departments need help, it doesn’t necessarily come from the nearest department(s). Why are mutual-aid arrangements so different for fire-fighting?”

We asked spokespersons at two area fire departments to share the reasoning behind why things work the way they do.

From Savoy FD public information officer Eddie Bain: “The Mutual Aid System for Champaign County fire departments is a system whereby departments utilize an agreed-upon support system. Agencies may flex the request for support as needs and incidents dictate. Staffing or specific equipment needs are two areas where mutual aid works well. The magnitude or severity of an incident may also generate the need for mutual aid support.”

From Champaign FD PIO Randy Smith: “The Champaign Fire Department has mutual-aid agreements with different agencies locally. As an incident escalates, through additional alarms, those additional agencies are dispatched by Metcad by a predetermined run card. For instance, Urbana Fire Department is utilized earlier-on in a working incident or one that has increased to a second-alarm level. Additional agencies are dispatched as part of a third-alarm. The Champaign and Urbana Fire Departments have an ability to train together throughout the year and are quickly able to integrate into each other’s incidents, which makes them an important first resource.”  

I also reached to the State of Illinois’ MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) coordinating agency, to see if they could provide any general information about how things work statewide – especially in places where cities with full-time, paid fire departments border areas served by volunteer firefighters. So far, no one from MABAS has responded.

Here’s an idea, entrepreneurs….

If there’s anything Mailbag readers love more than questions and answers about potholes and other road hazards, it’s questions and answers about food-related businesses. This one’s not a question per se, but we’re passing it along as … um … a public service?

“A recent trip to the Illinois State Fair beckons an obvious question: where is the Champaign-Urbana version of the State Fair Food Truck? Someone with the right entrepreneurial spirit needs to establish a business that sells all the terrifically popular items associated with the State Fair: mini-donuts, corn dogs, fried cheese curds, cinnamon rolls, and gelato (call it Italian ice cream if you must).

How much money could such a food truck make at the Farmer’s Market each week and all the street festivals every year? Clearly, the community needs this business! So get going, entrepreneurs. The idea is the hard part, and that part’s done.”

Ohhh, you had me at mini-donuts….

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