Every year, millions of people visit State Street in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. But instead of hurrying to the office or grabbing a bite to eat, what if you stopped and asked: Is this street working the way it should? That’s the question the Chicago Loop Alliance is asking as part of its plan to create a vision for what State Street could be.
Designing the State Street of the future isn’t a new idea. In the 1970s, in an effort to revive the central business district, the city decided to turn it into a pedestrian and transit mall. But by the mid-1990s, the State Street Mall was seen as a well-intentioned flop. The aim was to compete with the shopping district on North Michigan Avenue and with sprawling suburban malls, but as Brent Minor of the Greater State Street Council said in 1996, “You can look at what we have right here and we can call this a mall, but it was truly never a mall. It was a transit mall.”
“Malls in major urban areas never work,” said former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1996. “As mayor, it’s very difficult to find out who proposed it!”
His dad, Richard J., for starters … but in any case, the city reopened State Street to traffic in 1996 and kicked off a street-level redesign that brought new lampposts and subway entrances designed with an eye toward the city’s history, plus flowers and shrubs that brought a touch of greenery to the Loop (especially in the summertime).
The plan basically worked. State Street was once again, as Ol’ Blue Eyes hails it, that great street. But as more residents move downtown, and shopping and transportation patterns change, the Chicago Loop Alliance – which handles much of the daily management of State at the street level – says it’s time to rethink things again.
“It’s becoming increasingly costly for us to maintain the street to the condition that people are used to, and so we’re interested to see if there’s some other things that we could do that might make it more sustainable into the future,” said Michael Edwards, Chicago Loop Alliance president and CEO.
At the Loop Alliance Foundation’s annual meeting Thursday morning, members heard about the new Elevate State plan from Ernie Wong, who is principal of the urban landscape architecture firm Site, which was hired to lead the project. Some key elements the plan will consider: how people get around on State Street, and what the infrastructure looks like.
“The center median, if you think about it on State Street, currently houses a lot of parking for city vehicles,” Wong said. “Can that be used in a much better way?”
And, can retail on State Street take a cue from places like the Starbucks Roastery and rethink brick-and-mortar stores?
“People want to walk into a store, find an experience, and then they’ll purchase something at that point – whether it’s in the store or online,” Wong said.
It’s a big plan. But then, so is this stretch of State Street.
“It’s almost a mile long, it’s very vertical, it’s very wide, and so I think things that we can add to the street that kind of bring that scale down a little bit would be important,” Edwards said.
During his presentation, Wong cited public spaces like Paseo Bandera in Santiago, Chile, and Superkilen in Copenahagen, Denmark. He says they’re inspirations, but not the model.
“I think we’d like to make State Street the model for other places!” Wong said.
The Elevate State plan includes a series of workshops throughout the spring and summer. The plan is scheduled to be released at the end of the year.