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Macy’s would be part of a reborn State Street under a city panel’s new recommendations.

Daniel Boczarski, Macy’s

Can State Street get its groove back? A panel’s new proposals show real promise

But without a consistent push from Mayor Brandon Johnson, even the best-laid plans won’t go far in remaking Chicago’s iconic “great street.”

We were encouraged to see Wednesday’s release of a set of big-picture recommendations for rethinking downtown State Street.

Though rocked by the pandemic and a nearly 30% vacancy rate, the street is still one of the city’s most important thoroughfares, and one of the most resilient — repurposing itself as an arts, retail and academic corridor after surviving the near-cataclysmic loss of six of its seven flagship retail stores between the 1970s and 1990s.

The future State Street would build on what’s already there, from the looks of new recommendations released by a panel composed of the Chicago Loop Alliance, the Urban Land Institute Chicago and the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

“State Street will be reclaimed as Chicago’s great street, tied to the rhythm of the city and its neighborhoods,” panel chair Mark Kelly said when the group’s findings were presented before an audience at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.

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Lofty talk — and hard work ahead, for certain. But if the result is a more viable State Street, then all the better for downtown and the city.

State Street in three acts

The 12-member panel’s work targeted 1 mile of State Street between Ida B. Wells and Wacker drives.

The recommendations divide State Street into three zones. The portion between Wells Drive and Monroe Street would be a civic and educational district — which it pretty much is already, with the Washington Library and DePaul University among the institutions there now.

The section between Washington and Monroe streets would be reinforced as a retail anchor, with outdoor seating aimed at encouraging shoppers to relax or dine while there. New retail would feature restaurants, fashion stores or youth-oriented shopping, the panel said.

Meanwhile, the northern end of State between Wacker Drive and Washington Street would be an arts district that would host festivals and other events. Makes sense, with the Chicago, Nederlander and Goodman theaters already within footsteps of State and Randolph streets.

Mayor’s bully pulpit will be needed

There’s some hefty lifting needed to create the kind of structural changes — and not just the cosmetic ones — State Street needs.

And the recommendations think of State Street as a strip, which is somewhat shortsighted. Instead, the street should be considered a spine that could benefit — and draw benefit from — activity on nearby Wabash and Dearborn streets.

In addition, that historic crossroads of State and Madison streets — ground zero for the city’s street numbering system — should be lifted up under any improvement plan.

State and Madison doesn’t have to become Chicago’s Times Square, but it can be made to be more prominent, more of the nucleus for downtown, than the relatively uncelebrated intersection it is now.

And for sure, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration needs to send a strong message that it will vigorously fight the U.S. General Service Agency’s daft plans to level the Century and Consumers buildings, two early 20th century skyscrapers on the southwest corner of Adams and State streets.

The buildings were given preliminary landmark status in April under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration — although the feds have the power to overrule the designation and wreck the buildings anyway.

Turning the site into a landscaped security plaza is contrary to what State Street needs. And while the two buildings are under a federal historic properties review, Johnson’s administration must speak loudly in favor of preserving and redeveloping these important structures.

Indeed, Johnson ought to be a forceful voice for State Street’s improvement, as were his predecessors — for better or worse — dating back to Richard J. Daley.

Without a consistent push from the Fifth Floor, even the best-laid plans get no further than a City Hall filing cabinet.

Besides, it’s time for Chicago to do something major again when it comes to reshaping the built environment for the public good.

We’ve got successes such as Millennium Park and the downtown Riverwalk. A new State Street should be the city’s next big thing.

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