Tough times — and a possible Target store — offer Chicago a chance to rethink the Mag Mile

It’s time to rethink the Mag Mile in a way that keeps it special.

SHARE Tough times — and a possible Target store — offer Chicago a chance to rethink the Mag Mile
A nearly empty sidewalk on North Michigan in Magnificent Mile, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

A nearly empty sidewalk along the “Magnificent Mile” on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

There is a fair amount of fretting these days, at least from some quarters, over the state of the Magnificent Mile.

And not without good reason. Over the past year, Chicago’s premier shopping district has been socked by a pandemic-related economic downturn, last summer’s looting and retail tenants such as Macy’s leaving the strip.

All of this places North Michigan Avenue at a crossroads. And while we don’t think it’s as dire as some believe — such as those who are huffing and puffing over the notion of a Target store (the horror!) moving into Macy’s space in the Water Tower — we do think it’s time to rethink the Mag Mile in a way that keeps it special and makes it more unique.

“On one hand, [North Michigan Avenue] is a really cool place, but it’s also kind of elite,” says urban planning professor Teresa Cordova, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.

“How do you not lose that while you try to expand the audience?” she says. “I see it as an opportunity.”

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A more magnificent Mile?

Among higher-end shopping districts across the nation, North Michigan Avenue isn’t alone in its troubles.

Beverly Hills’ three-block-long Rodeo Drive suffers from many of the same issues plaguing the Magnificent Mile. Nearly a dozen upscale merchants decamped from the commercial strip last year, including Lacoste, Michael Kors, Piaget and Battaglia.

“It’s very difficult to have a brick-and-mortar store and make money, [especially] when they’re not allowed to operate normally,” West Coast commercial real estate broker Jay Luchs told the Hollywood Reporter. “What does that do to any tenant? It’s a problem.”

Still, Rodeo Drive’s cachet continues to draw interest — a lesson, there, for North Michigan Avenue. The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce says four new retailers are interested in moving onto the strip, plus a new Chanel flagship store.

Meanwhile, landowners on Rodeo Drive are experimenting with leases that are shorter than the typical decade-long agreements. The short-term deals allow retailers to “test the waters,” Luchs says.

Larger and additional fixes could be needed to bring shoppers — and shops — back to North Michigan Avenue. The lifting of COVID-19 restrictions will help, naturally, but the street also could do more to make the experience there more unique.

That means continuing to focus on bringing and maintaining reasonably exclusive businesses that have a Chicago flavor.

“Can you imagine a place that sells high-end necklaces that were made on the South Side?” Cordova says. “Or from the Polish community? How can we be creative?”

Changes might also include reshaping the streetscape and adding more sidewalk entertainment to the mix, so that the strip feels more like a destination — and less like a conveyer belt that delivers shoppers to retailers’ doors.

And even in the context of last summer’s troubles, reviving Michigan Avenue also means resisting the urge to harden the street with an expanded network of bollards, barriers and security cameras. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who represents a portion of the shopping district, is a fan of adding these measures. We’d want to see it done in way that doesn't make the street feel like an encampment.

“People like going there because they find things they can't find somewhere else,” Cordova said. “But designwise, spaces that could be more friendly after you're shopping [are needed]. Outdoor spaces. If you go down to State Street ... you see musicians and street artists. You don’t get much of that [on the Mag Mile] except by the Wrigley Building.”

Letting go of ‘back in the day’

The State Street example is worthy of examination. The Great Street was Chicago’s top shopping district for much of the 20th century, jam packed with retail flagships such as Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott, as well as a mile-long run of shoe stores, speciality shops, banks, offices and other commerce.

But the rise of the Mag Mile, suburban shopping malls and shifting retail demographics in the 1970s delivered body blows that nearly put State Street down for the count. Turning the thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall in 1979 was almost the death knell.

So State Street found a new, multi-use purpose for itself. Educational facilities such as DePaul University, the School of the Art Institute and Robert Morris University moved onto the street. So did artistic nonprofits such as the Joffrey Ballet and the Siskel Center.

You can still shop on State Street — the heart of it was never quite lost — but there are other things there also. Even residences. North Michigan Avenue was designed and built as a mixed-use street, and the North Michigan Avenue Association’s Vision 2025 plan anticipates more uses.

But the document, created in 2015 — which feels like a lifetime ago already — might now have to be even bolder in seeking new functions and players to the street.

“Sometimes, you gotta let go of ‘back in the day,’ “ Cordova says. “But what we don't want to do is say ‘It isn’t what it was,’ and lament.”

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