The Lean Mile – Chicago Magazine

LJust over a decade ago, Water Tower Place was the ultimate destination for shoppers wanting to splash the cash along the Magnificent Mile. The gray marble-clad building on North Michigan Avenue was once home to retail giants including Lord & Taylor and Marshall Field’s. The eight-story mall had dozens of brand name stores, chic boutiques and a bustling food court with a dozen stations each serving a distinct cuisine.

These days, department stores have disappeared, leaving vacant spaces. Other familiar retailers have fled, including Gap and Banana Republic, making way for sports jersey and t-shirt stores. The highlight of the food court is an M Burger. “Everyone would love to see Water Tower Place back to what it was,” says Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes part of the Mag Mile. “The reality is that it’s not going to happen.”

This doesn’t just apply to Water Tower Place. The entire Mag Mile needs revitalization, being primarily responsible for the retail vacancy rate of 22% (vs. 4% in 2016) and a 23% year-on-year decline. another of the city‘s sales tax revenue in its wealthy 60611 ZIP code, according to data cited by the Urban Land Institute Chicago, a nonprofit organization recruited by the city and business interests to examine options for the Mag Mile.

Like other high-profile shopping districts, the Mag Mile faces online rivals and a business-crushing pandemic; after the recent spate of shootings, muggings, carjackings and smash-and-grab thefts, it’s also now considered a dangerous place to visit. Thus, a panel of urban planners, architects and civic and commercial experts joined the town hall to work on a rescue strategy.

One of the first results: a report commissioned from ULI Chicago that recommends transforming the Mag Mile into a pedestrian-friendly promenade, with wider sidewalks, expanded green spaces, “pocket parks” and places to stroll, lounging or having a drink. The ULI Chicago panel selected ideas on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, Rue Bandera in Santiago, Chile, and the High Line and Bryant Park in New York. “Mag Mile is a thoroughfare, so people go to one or two places and keep going,” says Cindy McSherry, executive director of ULI Chicago. “We are thinking of ways to spend an afternoon there. Shopping is only part of what you do.

Shopping, however, is a key driver, and the ULI Chicago plan calls for dividing the Mag Mile into four “retail zones.” The far north, from Oak Street to Delaware Place, is said to be home to luxury boutiques like Oak’s – Armani, Chanel, Hermès, Prada – where the retail vacancy rate is just 3%, according to CBRE , which follows commercial leasing. Going south, the area between Delaware Place and Chicago Avenue would feature “experiential” stores (think Immersive Van Gogh exhibition, the Legoland Discovery Center, theaters and drink tasting rooms). The middle section of the mile, between Chicago and Grand Avenues, would host similar department stores at current tenants Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. The southern point, between Grand and the Chicago River, would focus on the Apple Store and tour vendors and operators along the Riverwalk and renovated Pioneer Court.

The Mag Mile could attract young people by offering “high-level restaurants, cutting-edge fashion stores, cutting-edge furniture stores”, and even a similar headquarters to the Fulton Market district, says Keely Polczynski, vice -senior president at CBRE. “You don’t go to Michigan Avenue to see the same things you see at any mall,” she says.

Additionally, the Mag Mile mission calls for more residential buildings beyond the Tribune Tower, which has been converted into tony condos. Underutilized offices could be repurposed as student housing for nearby universities (Loyola’s downtown campus is just a block from Water Tower Place) or as “medical hotels” for employees, students and families of patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says McSherry of ULI Chicago.

One problem that cannot wait, however, is crime. “The No. 1 concern in real estate is location, location, location,” says Alderman Hopkins. “Well, we already have the location. So the three main things are public safety, public safety, public safety.”

A recent mid-morning trip to the Mag Mile provided some insight into these woes. Two police SUVs with flashing blue lights were parked on the Michigan Avenue median. An armed security guard stood in front of Gucci. Water Tower Place has issued a warning that on Fridays and Saturdays after 4 p.m., anyone under the age of 17 must be accompanied “at all times” by an adult.

Mag Mile merchants have agreed to pay more for surveillance and security, and Illinois passed a law this year targeting perpetrators of organized smash-and-grabs such as those who hit the streets in 2019. Violators who steal more than $300 worth of goods could face 10 years in prison. The Mag Mile’s criminal setbacks “have become a flashpoint or a wake-up call for lawmakers,” said Rob Karr, CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Kimberly Bares, CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association, which advocates for the business district, says the ULI Chicago study is “a beginning, not an end” and there’s more to discuss, including how to pay for the renovation . Reducing property taxes on some buildings on Michigan Avenue would be a start, she says. Owners could reinvest this freed up money back into their properties.

Public funding can help pay for increased security, Hopkins says. But there’s ‘no appetite’ for retail grants, or a Mag Mile tax boost funding district – an investment mechanism to fund redevelopment in run-down areas, not places like North Michigan Avenue, he points out.

Hurry up. Recently, Water Tower Place owner Brookfield Properties returned the 47-year-old mall to its lender, MetLife. In other words, the mall is now worth less than the $300 million owed to it – another sign that the Magnificent Mile has lost its magnificence.

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