Living on State Street? Kindergarten on State Street? Well, why not?

State Street is poised to reimagine itself, possibly in the most comprehensive way since 1995. We asked the experts about that.

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A worker hangs a banner outside the downtown Walgreen’s on State Street — that “great street” — in 1979.

A worker hangs a banner outside the downtown Walgreen’s on State Street — that “great street” — in 1979.

CST

Chicagoans have always shopped on State Street.

That’s pretty much been the street’s reason for existence since the late 1860s when Potter Palmer gambled on its future by building the Field & Leiter department store there and his grand Palmer House hotel.

But how about living on State Street? Or going to high school there? Maybe even kindergarten?

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Retail shopping remains the heart of State Street’s identity, but the thoroughfare has evolved over the last few decades, becoming a home to colleges and college dorms, the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Harold Washington Library.

And now, as we wrote in an editorial on Sunday, State Street is poised to reimagine itself again, possibly in the most comprehensive way since a similar effort in 1995, so as to make the most of the Chicago economy of the next 25 years.

The Chicago Loop Alliance, State’s Street’s city-approved caretakers since 1929, announced last week that it is launching a year-long study of every aspect of the street, from retail and commercial activity to public spaces and traffic flow.

Why is this so important?

Because we’re talking State Street.

“State Street is a symbol of Chicago,” said architect Ernest C. Wong, founder and principal of Site Design Group, who will lead the study.

No big capital projects

We’re eager to see what the study comes up with. In the meantime, here are some early thoughts.

City Hall should be wary of pouring money into major architectural changes. That $24 million State Street Mall of the 1980s was a bust, and we can’t say much more for the CTA’s $41 million Loop Link bus transit system, a confusing web of dedicated bus lanes.

A big public works project isn’t what State Street needs, although the existing streetscape and sidewalks sorely need sprucing up, repairs and replacements.

“The bones of the street are good,” Philip Enquist, retired urban planning partner at Chicago architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, told us. “A major, permanent architectural renewal of the street — I’d worry the investment would be in the wrong place.”

A better approach might be the imaginative reuse of what’s already there.

A street where you live

State Street could become a more residential street, with condos retrofitted into the upper floors of older buildings. As internet shopping continues to deliver body blows to traditional retail, these old store spaces could become residences that offer all the amenities of a big city, with the most direct possible access to public transportation.

Chicago architect Adrian Smith, of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, sees great possibilities in that, saying residential conversions also could bring more low and medium income housing to State Street.

“This has never been a strong office zone — never good for commercial, ever,” Smith said, referring to those underused upper floors. “These buildings could be prime to rehab for residential. They have windows and light courts.”

Smith, who led State Street’s 1990s redesign, also offered a suggestion that could be a masterstroke: converting some State Street buildings — and others downtown — into public K-12 schools.

Court the college crowd

State Street could do more, as well, to capitalize on the presence of a small army of college kids.

Thousands of students from Columbia College, DePaul University, the School of the Art Institute, Roosevelt University, John Marshall Law School and Robert Morris University attend classes on or near State Street. They contribute to the street’s commercial vitality and shape its culture.

An obvious aim of planners should be to encourage more of that, via zoning changes and small business assistance, creating more places for students to eat, relax, study and be entertained. We’re thinking food halls and pop-up retail.

“You build off the student population,” Enquist said. “More event venues. More concert and music clubs.”

Enquist also suggested recruiting more colleges into the Loop and along State Street, including the University of Illinois at Chicago. Two years ago, UIC established a presence in the Loop when it merged with John Marshall Law School.

Two big challenges

Two particularly big challenges for planners will be maximizing the potential of Block 37, a highrise building and shopping center at 108 N. State St., and finding viable reuses for two vacant skyscrapers that stand in the shadow of the Dirksen Federal Building.

Block 37 was designed to benefit State Street and the North Loop, but the complex really does nothing for either. It works and feels best below ground as a transit connection.

And the two buildings next to Dirksen — 202 and 220 S. State St. — are stuck in a strange limbo. They’re too nice to be torn down, historic preservation being crucial to the character of State Street; but their owner, the U.S. General Services Administration, recently halted a deal that would have allowed them to be converted to condos.

The GSA expressed security concerns, given that the buildings are so close to the Dirksen Federal Building.

And so the conversation begins. What’s to be done with State Street?

Got a great idea of your own? Please drop us a line at letters@suntimes.com.

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