General

Throwing Chicago’s shopping and tourism for a Loop

chicago_christmas_2000_optSaturday’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

It’s arguably the most famous part of Chicago.

Yet, unless you work in the area, you probably don’t spend much time there – something that’s true for city-dwellers and out-of-towners alike.

However, if a coalition of downtown businesses has its way, both local shoppers and tourists will soon be thrown for quite the Loop.

As one of the city’s 77 officially designated community areas, “The Loop” is Chicago’s central business district. And as home to institutions such as State Street, Goodman Theatre, City Hall and the Chicago Board of Trade, it’s also considered the Windy City’s commercial, cultural, political and financial core.

But the area that derives its nickname from the nexus of elevated train tracks that run in a loop through it also tends to be much more of a place where people go to work than a destination they go to visit.

In an effort to change that, the Chicago Loop Alliance this week introduced a strategic plan intended to make the Loop into much more.

Coming on the heels of the Alliance’s new program to address downtown homelessness, this plan’s initiatives include a new website, more outdoor public seating and the transformation of dingy Wabash Avenue into a corridor that joins Michigan Avenue and State Street as hotspots for both local shoppers and tourists.

“Five or 10 years ago, having a cool city may not have been a necessity, but the rise of the global middle class and the rise of cities in Asia has made it a requirement,” Loop Alliance Executive Director Michael Edwards told Crain’s Chicago. “We have to up our game and create a higher-performing urban experience at street level.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for Chicago to boost tourism from its current level of 46.2 million visitors to 50 million by 2020. One tool to spark that growth is the new loopchicago.com, which features maps and resources for entertainment, dining, drinking, shopping and lodging, as well as a geolocation capacity that allows you to find the garage where you think you left your car or the nearest Starbucks if you really need a latte.

Perhaps most interestingly, are the ways in which the Alliance hopes to beautify and enrich the Loop. One measure involves assuming management of Pritzker Park at State and Van Buren streets to renovate it into a green space that draws in the area’s college students and workers.

A second initiative includes expanding a pilot program up and down State Street that this year added bright blue patio furniture to the spacious median near Wacker Drive.

Edwards told Crain’s that it’s important to offer public seating that’s not tied to a restaurant, and I can say that in New York City the part of Times Square that I really enjoy is its plethora of public sidewalk and street seating for people watching.

Edwards called so-called “place-making” is “the hottest thing in urban revitalization, because millennials just want to hang out and global visitors want to engage with a city.”

Finally, the Alliance wants to improve Wabash Avenue, the dark and dirty street that runs beneath the Loop’s “L” tracks. Over the next three months, brainstorming sessions will be held to determine what transportation, urban design and arts efforts could make the street more appealing. My initial advice would be improved lighting, lush sidewalk planters and a fresh coat of paint (or two) on the aging train track support beams.

With its fascinating history and architecture, the Loop is one of my favorite parts of Chicago, but it could be much better. It will be interesting to see if the Alliance can actually tie it all together.