For those of us who have emotionally, professionally or financially invested in downtown Chicago, the last two years have been difficult to stomach.
From the moment you arrived to well after you departed, the Loop that I fondly remember was bursting with energy. There was an unmistakable buzz that very few locales around the world could replicate. The immense and diverse crowds of office workers, residents, restaurant goers, shoppers, students and tourists all intermingled to make downtown Chicago a truly distinctive place.
Today is a vastly different landscape: sparsely populated streets, dark storefronts, half-filled office buildings and rampant crime. This is not the Loop we have grown to adore. In order for Chicago to be the successful, world-class city that it strives to be, it all must start with a healthy and thriving downtown. Without that, we are just another town. Something must change fast.
The immediate answer to turn the tide is a concerted effort on the part of the City of Chicago and all the key stakeholders to collectively map the next path forward for the Loop. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most critical time in the history of our city since the Chicago Fire. Everyone who works, lives, owns property or has clients here should want to get involved in this effort to reimagine downtown Chicago and the role it will play for years to come.
How do we accomplish this admittedly gargantuan task? Here are a few ideas:
1) Let’s begin with the Thompson Center. It is wonderful that Michael Reschke has stepped in with a perfectly fine vision to keep this notorious structure alive. However, there is nothing going on here which will change the trajectory of the Loop. Meanwhile, the five sites mentioned for the proposed Chicago casino have drawn significant community opposition and all present challenges. Frankly, each is uninspiring and non-transformational. Therefore, I must ask once again, why is the Thompson Center site not being mentioned as the home of the casino? Is this not an obvious solution? A combination casino-entertainment complex and hotel at this location would be a slam dunk in terms of restoring Central Loop activity and spurring new and meaningful development nearby.
2) The city desperately needs to develop an initiative to encourage smaller shop owners from neighborhoods all over the city, as well as startups, to lease the many vacant storefronts in downtown Chicago. In order to assist with the likely rent gap between what the tenant can realistically afford and what the landlord expects to get, the city needs to either subsidize landlords or offer substantial tax breaks to encourage more variety, or both. As businesses grow over time, so will the rental rates. Downtown rents have generally priced out the “little guy” over the years. Has there ever been a better time to reverse this trend? Creative, entrepreneurial retailers will add a new and unique character to the Loop.
3) Inevitably, several Loop office towers are not going to survive post-Covid life and will need to be reimagined. Many of these are faced with significant deferred maintenance and high vacancy, and have accordingly outlived their usefulness as office buildings. The cost of renovating will be hefty, and the rents obtained when the work is complete will not be enough of a return to justify the expenditure. These properties should be ripe for residential conversions. Those that survive and remain as office buildings will need to adapt and modernize. The need for affordable office space will always be present and not every tenant desires a plethora of amenities. Some are perfectly fine with reasonable prices and convenient locations. Perhaps a subsidy and/or tax break approach is needed here, too, to help keep these older buildings viable.
4) If the Loop is truly going to transform into a genuine mixed-use neighborhood, another park is needed in the central district or on the western edge. It needs to be something unique in order to draw visitors, perhaps akin to a mini-Bryant Park in Manhattan. Some ideas include a mini-golf course, outdoor art gallery or a live music venue. Certainly space constraints will be a factor, but it might be time to revisit an idea that Steve Fifield had several years ago which involved “capping” the Kennedy Expressway and creating a 15-acre park running between Lake and Adams Streets. Now that would be transformational!
5) Along the same lines, more communal areas are needed where people can gather and linger. Maybe park-like medians need to be built in the middle of LaSalle Street with benches where people can grab a sandwich or coffee from a nearby storefront window or food truck and gather and relax.
6) Chicago absolutely must get this crime problem under control, both on the streets and on buses and trains. All one needs to do is walk around or take an L ride to see that things have changed. At one time, the Loop felt like the safest part of the city. That is no longer the case. If people do not feel safe coming downtown, they simply won’t. It is way too easy to work from home or somewhere else. If employees are victims of a crime, it is just a matter of time before businesses start to bail and look to go elsewhere, whether it be the suburbs or a different state altogether.
Reimagining the Loop and implementing an action plan is no easy task and will need to be a well-organized, joint effort between public and private entities. The first step is to form some sort of organization which will start developing concrete ideas, determine how to finance each one and finally put everything in motion. It could take years to get there, but in the long run, a better, more sustainable and inclusive Loop can emerge. Together, we can make this happen.