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Ideas emerge to make the Magnificent Mile less frenetic and more accessible

With security the immediate priority, consultants have offered suggestions for the shopping district’s future to ensure it thrives despite changing times for retailers.

Pedestrians pass The Office Experience at 540 N. Michigan Ave., an example of attractions that temporarily have taken up the slack from retailers that have left the street.
The Magnificent Mile Association turned to the Urban Land Institute for ideas to keep the shopping district relevant.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A visitor to Chicago, especially a first-timer, can stroll along North Michigan Avenue for the holidays and imagine that the uglier side of urban living is far away. Yet all is not well on what remains one of the world’s most elite shopping districts.

Retail vacancy rates have climbed to more than 20%, experts say. Chicago’s crime wave, including the slew of smash-and-grabs, has made people afraid to be out and about. Dealing with that is the priority, but what about the longer term? Retail is changing, so what does the avenue need to stay relevant?

Ideas include introducing Parisian-style cafes and independent, one-of-a-kind shops. The street could benefit from a pedestrian bridge to Oak Street Beach and better connections to Navy Pier. And the mile-long stretch may indeed be magnificent, but it might be too long and could be broken up into distinctly branded sections, including one mixing show business with selling — hence, a new term, “merchantainment.”

Those are among proposals from an expert group that the Urban Land Institute, a real-estate think tank, assembled for the Magnificent Mile Association. The panel was chaired by Alicia Berg, a city planning chief under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and current assistant vice president at the University of Chicago. The recommendations will be aired at 6 p.m. Monday during an open Zoom meeting. Berg and Kimberly Bares, the association’s president and CEO, gave me an early summary.

“What happens with Michigan Avenue is important to the health and the tax base of the whole city,” Berg said. “This is not a downtown-versus-the neighborhoods kind of thing.” The city backed the study with $20,000.

Crime is uppermost on everyone’s minds, and the group called for immediate attention to improving safety and people’s perceptions of it. Bares said the association is already on it, having marshaled property owners to support an added tax levy for enhanced security. She said it would raise about $742,000 a year from commercial — not residential — owners. A year ago, alderpersons whose wards cover North Michigan Avenue blocked the plan because of confusion about property owner support and how the money would be spent. Bares said those issues are resolved.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he now backs the additional levy on businesses. “The plan puts greater emphasis on safety and security and we need that. That’s what we’re hearing from residents,” Hopkins said. He said the City Council should approve it this month if it can tear itself away from the ward remap battle.

Still to be decided are tactics. Security cameras? Off-duty cops on patrol? “Ambassadors” or greeters to mingle with people? Stores have added guards or cleared displays at closing but are walking a fine line, not wanting to make the avenue look like a garrison. Bares said one answer isn’t enough. Concerning the thefts, she said, “Retailers are seeing repeat offenders, people who are taking advantage of the system not working.”

Kimberly Bares
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Beyond safety, the consultants emphasized thinking big and small. The big stuff, Bares said, could involve “new kinds of infrastructure and amenities.” She liked the idea of an attractive bridge for pedestrians connecting the avenue’s north end at the Drake Hotel to Oak Street Beach. She said there could be better transit to Navy Pier and, with more action now on the south end at the Chicago River, water taxis could be added to carry shoppers to the West Loop train stations. There’s an obligatory reference to better connections to the airports, a Chicago concern since the dawn of passenger aviation.

Smaller-scale proposals include cafes and space for neighborhood-based businesses. The avenue has a hurry-up vibe. Inviting people to linger would build on its strength as “one of the greatest mixed-use streets in the country,” Berg said. Will landlords adjust rents to allow for that? “The owners and brokers on Michigan Avenue know we’ve got to stay innovative and interesting,” Bares said.

Another idea is to convert higher-floor retail space now hard to lease into housing for medical students and staff. The street has taken its biggest blows from retailers such as Macy’s, Gap and Forever 21 closing multi-level spaces. “Experiences” have taken up slack but are temporary. The showcases for Dr. Seuss and the TV show “The Office” are due to leave in January.

Retail broker David Stone, principal of Stone Real Estate, said he suspects one or two major stores still will exit Michigan Avenue. “I do think it will get a little bit worse before it gets better,” said Stone, who was not involved in the Urban Land Institute study.

Analysts have reported retailers, for the first time in years, are opening more stores than they are shutting. “For Michigan Avenue, it will be some number of years to recovery,” Stone said. “But retail does recover. … Brick-and-mortar locations are being legitimized.”