Chicago, IL

Can Chicago's State Street Regain Its Vibrancy?

Jennifer Geer

The Chicago Loop Alliance hopes so as they have revealed a plan to close State Street to traffic every Sunday for the next few months to attract pedestrians to the area

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Photo by Ethan Bykerk on Unsplash

One year into the pandemic, downtown Chicago is not the same place it used to be. According to a report from CBRE, a global commercial real estate firm, 15.5% of downtown office space is currently vacant. CBRE is predicting it could reach as high as 20% by the end of 2022. That's one-fifth of the city's office space, empty.

Last March, when workers were sent to work from home, the city emptied out. Restaurants and retail businesses suffered. With fewer office workers coming downtown, Chicago businesses are searching for ways to revitalize downtown and bring much-needed life back to the city.

The Chicago Loop Alliance has proposed shutting down State Street to all vehicle traffic from Lake to Madison Streets. The alliance is made up of over 300 businesses and individuals located in the Loop and nearby with the goal to attract business to the Loop and to help the economic recovery.

The plan is to keep State Street closed to cars on summer Sundays from 7 AM to 11 PM, with special programs and activities to take place between 11 AM to 8 PM. The group hopes to create a safe, outdoor space for pedestrians to shop, dine, listen to live music, and enjoy various special events.

The challenge is keeping the gatherings safe by following Covid protocols (wearing masks and social distancing) while avoiding the sort of large crowds that can be drawn to special events in the city.

The other challenge is to avoid the terrible flop that occurred in the 1970s when State Street was turned into a pedestrian mall. If you weren't around for this one, you can read about it here. Trying to recreate the lure of the suburban mall of the time had the exact opposite effect. People criticized it for reducing the number of shoppers and activity on the street, rather than bringing people in.

Planners at the Chicago Loop Alliance have seen the mistakes of the past, and they don't intend to repeat them. Kalindi Parikh, director of planning, stated that “People have a lot of anxiety and nerves about the term pedestrianizing, especially when it comes to State Street because of its brief stint as a pedestrian mall that didn’t go so well." She continued, “This is totally different because it’s about sharing the street, and it’s a temporary use — it’s programmed and gives people a reason to be downtown on one particular day at a particular time and to engage with cultural partners.”

With outdoor restrictions becoming more relaxed in Chicago, the trend to move events outside will help retailers and restaurants find new ways of doing business. With a worrying trend in increasing cases, indoor events are likely to remain limited for the foreseeable future. Outdoors is the key to letting people gather safely.

Parikh hopes to bring vibrancy and culture back to the city by bringing in entertainers from around different neighborhoods to perform on State Street. Rather than a concert that would bring in large crowds, she's hoping to recreate the feel of a busy urban area with street performers that spontaneously pop up while keeping crowds distanced to follow Covid protocols.

The workers may return to downtown as more and more people get vaccinated. Though some businesses have found success with keeping employees working from home, others are eager to get back to the office.

Less than two blocks away at 70 W. Madison Street, the attorneys at Nixon Peabody LLP have renewed their lease for the next 15 years. The building has upgraded their lobby, elevators and fitness center in the hopes to attract more tenants, like Nixon Peabody, that want to commit to returning to downtown.

We'll have to wait and see if efforts like revitalizing State Street can help bring life back to the Loop.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

Chicago, IL
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