The Chicago Loop Alliance said Friday it has not given up on the idea of dramatically expanding a downtown taxing district and unveiled plans to give dark and dank Wabash Avenue a sorely-needed facelift with or without the expansion.
The ambitious improvements range from historic light standards on ten cross-streets between Wacker and Congress to turning space beneath a new CTA station atop Jewelers Row into a gateway known as, “The Room,” featuring music and neon lights akin to the moving walkway at the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport.
To make Wabash more inviting for pedestrians, the plan calls for lighting up building facades, bump-out curbs at all intersections and the possibility of turning three Wabash intersections—at Washington, Madison and Monroe—into a so-called “pedestrian scramble” or “Barnes Dance” intersection.
That’s where the light in all directions stays red for 14 seconds every other light cycle so pedestrians can cross — not in four ways, but in six.
The plan also calls for turning one of the two lanes of traffic on Wabash into a shared bike lane, creating more bicycle parking and re-striping the street to include designated turn lanes.
Adams Street between State and Michigan would be turned into an “art street,” complete with loft space for artists, art-oriented businesses and turning planters into stages for one or two live performers.
Mike Edwards, executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, acknowledged that it’ll take millions to execute all of the ideas culled from more than a hundred suggestions from property owners and stakeholders. But, he argued that Wabash is in dire need of a makeover.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on on State Street. There’s a lot going on on Michigan Ave. and at Millenium Park. But, Wabash is…a forgotten street. It’s a street out of time,” he said.
“The street has to be more rational. It has to feel cleaner and safer. It needs some reason to come down and see something new. It needs some kind of destination, something you might get in your car, come down and see.”
Board Chairman Marty Stern agreed that, for too many people, Wabash is a “street to rush through” on your way to Michigan Ave. or State Street.
“It’s noisy. It’s dark. There is no safety problem, but I can see the perception of a safety problem. This is a plan to combat that by lighting it up, making it greener and more interesting. The benefit is mostly to [building] owners. But, it’s also very critical to State Street and Michigan Ave. and making the whole east Loop more exciting,” he said.
Three months ago, pressure from downtown property owners and local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) prompted the Chicago Loop Alliance to abandon plans to dramatically expand Chicago’s oldest special taxing district in a way that would have raised property taxes on large buildings by anywhere from $500,000-to-$1 million.
Instead of nearly tripling annual collections–to $6.3 million–by expanding the boundaries to include scores of buildings on Wabash and Michigan between Wacker and Congress and ten cross-streets, the alliance asked the City Council to renew the existing “special service area” due to expire on Dec. 31, 2015.
That meant that any improvement on dark and dank Wabash and on a “weak area” of Michigan Ave. south of the Chicago River would either have to be put off, bankrolled by the city or federal governments or privately funded—by building owners or foundations.
On Friday, Edwards and Stern made it clear they have not given up on the idea of an expanded taxing district or a hybrid “business improvement district” with more flexibility because it’s not based on assessed value.
“The SSA ran into opposition, primarily from large building owners along Michigan Ave. They perceived there’d be some disproportionate taxation compared to the benefits they were getting. Wabash is a street much more in need of this that will have much more direct benefits,” Stern said.
“This is not an all-or-nothing. We’re gonna try and do some of the easy things first. But, obviously some of the big capital requirements like major lighting is gonna need a source of funds. And you can’t start thinking about that until you have a plan that people can get excited about.”
During Friday’s brainstorming session with property owners, Anne Voshel, an SSA commissioner who serves as consultant to Marc Realty, argued that the purpose of creating a “cohesive district” was to “take those cross streets and make the true transition” from Millenium Park all the way to State Street.
“It was not supported by the people on the street, maybe because we didn’t do it right,” she said.
“We shut the door on expansion at this point in time. But this is something we can go and talk about with Wabash owners.”