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Chicago’s ‘other’ Michigan Avenue could be magnificent once more

Reviving “The Avenue” in Roseland could teach our city how to bring new life to troubled neighborhood shopping strips across the South and West sides.

In the wake of a fire last year that destroyed the former Gately’s department store, City Hall is looking at creative ways to improve “The Avenue” in Roseland. In the wake of a fire last year that destroyed the former Gately’s department store, City Hall is looking at creative ways to improve “The Avenue” in Roseland.
In the wake of a fire that destroyed the former Gately’s department store last year, City Hall is looking at creative ways to improve “The Avenue” in Roseland.
Sun-Times file photo

Keep an eye on the Roseland neighborhood’s Michigan Avenue, once a retail strip so popular it was called Chicago’s second Magnificent Mile.

Shoppers could find anything from school supplies to furniture to brand new cars.

Rocked by two devastating extra-alarm fires within the last year, and now slammed by a pandemic that’s likely to change forever how we shop and gather, the faded and struggling commercial strip faces a tough future.

But “The Avenue” — as this stretch of Michigan Avenue between 115th and 107th was called in its heyday — now is being targeted by the city for possible redevelopment.

The plans were in place before the coronavirus broke out and they’ll need to be modified. But given that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit all traditional retail strips hard — have you seen the boarded up stores on North Michigan Avenue these days? — saving The Avenue should be even more of a priority.

When neighborhood shopping dies, neighborhoods die.

The Avenue’s day as a regional commercial giant are not likely to return. People just don’t shop in brick-and-mortar stores the way they used to, and the street’s major retailers, such as JCPenney, are long gone.

But the buildings still stand and could be reused in potentially exciting new ways. And if done correctly, the lessons learned here could be applied to troubled commercial streets in neighborhoods elsewhere on the South and West sides.

A diamond in the rough

Roseland has been included in the city’s new three-year $750 million Invest South/West program, which targets for improvements 10 South and West Side neighborhood commercial corridors.

“It’s a diamond in the rough,” city Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, imported last fall from Detroit by the Lightfoot administration, said to us about The Avenue. “I was surprised and delighted to see it’s all there.”

According to community input gathered from Invest South/West sessions, Roseland residents want to see The Avenue repositioned to take advantage of new tourist and commercial activity in the neighboring Pullman National Monument district.

They also want to preserve the street’s existing architecture — an eclectic mix that includes Victorian styles, 1920s buildings clad in decorative terra cotta, and postwar modernism. The Avenue suffered a huge loss last June when an extra-alarm fire claimed the vacant former Gately’s department store at 112th Street. A smaller building at 111th Street occupied by Beacon Light Ministries burned to the ground in January.

Preservation Chicago has placed The Avenue on its Seven Most Endangered list for 2020.

Keeping ‘those historic buildings’

A few miles to the northwest, the non-profit Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation is reviving West 79th Street. GAGDC Chief Executive Officer Carlos Nelson says that keeping the street’s 1920s retail and mixed-use buildings from being demolished was essential to the organization’s success. The group, which is now seeking to turn a four-story, terra cotta-clad former furniture store into a health and wellness center, has some advice for those working to revitalize The Avenue.

“You have to retain those historic buildings,” Nelson said. “Do not do a wide-scale demolition of those 100-year-old buildings. We’re turning them into offices for small businesses, tutoring facilities, things any neighborhood would need.”

And like The Avenue, 79th Street struggles with longstanding concerns that the street is unsafe, which drives away investors, residents and shoppers. GAGDC Economic Development Director Cheryl Johnson said the organization works at allaying those fears by throwing a popular two-day summer festival on 79th. The event drew 25,000 people last summer, though because of the coronavirus it is not likely to be held this summer.

Along with food, entertainment and musical acts, dentists and doctors were there providing free services. The same thing could be done on The Avenue — when it again becomes safe to do so — along with making the street cleaner and better lit.

Cox said that those who attended the Invest South/West meeting in Roseland talked about wanting to see The Avenue energized with more restaurants, arts and culture — including live theater. He said there is a need to help retain businesses, including Old Fashioned Donuts at 112th and Michigan, a black-owned, 50-year-old mainstay.

What’s next for ‘The Avenue’?

For City Hall, fielding proposals from businesses and entrepreneurs looking to set up shop on Michigan is a critical next step. Architect Jeff Bone told us he’d also like to see more housing on the street, maybe combined with public libraries, as the city did in 2019 with new buildings in Little Italy, West Ridge and Irving Park.

Bone is not involved in this particular Roseland project, but his architecture firm of Landon Bone Baker has designed housing at 104th and 105th and Michigan over the past 25 years.

Cox said the city’s facade improvement program could be enlisted to help fix building frontages. He suggested that the wealth of architectural styles could even prompt the city to consider forming a landmark district along the street — a designation that would bring property tax breaks and financial incentives to owners who restore their buildings.

Getting The Avenue’s vacant lots into the hands of new owners looking to do something with them would be a good turn, too.

None of this can work unless the city takes careful, deliberate, community-focused steps in bringing this about. We look forward to watching how this develops.

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