Transitioning a glittering downtown shopping mall to a more experiential space

Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue has fallen on hard times, as have many malls, and plans are underway to revive the property with new uses:

In consultant-speak, today’s juice is “experiential” retail. It means that people not only want something they haven’t seen before, but they want an experience to go along with their purchase. The Apple Store and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery further south on Michigan Avenue are examples of that — places where shoppers come to see and feel as well as to buy. A pop-up show called the “Dr. Seuss Experience” filled Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place this winter. Down the street, a “Museum of Ice Cream” is opening at the base of the newly renovated Tribune Tower this summer…

But she and her colleagues are already thinking big. A report titled “North Michigan Avenue: Strategies for a Vibrant Future” issued in March by a group of business and city leaders envisions a grand promenade running from the historic limestone Water Tower, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the lake along Chicago Avenue; and a soaring pedestrian bridge stretching from Michigan Avenue, over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, to Oak Street Beach. The bridge, modeled on a structure in Moscow, would make it possible to see and get to Lake Michigan from the Mag Mile without descending into dank tunnels under the beachfront drive.

Also in the report: a more run-of-the-mill property tax on landlords raising about three quarters of a million dollars passed the City Council this year; it will be used for cultural events like “Music on the Mile” and for security cameras. The city also awarded Bares’ group money from a federal grant to deploy a team of uniformed “ambassadors” — unarmed security personnel with radios to help tourists, assist the homeless and report criminal activity on the Mag Mile — starting in June.

But most of the report is focused on getting people excited about going downtown to enjoy attractions such as music, art and culture, and Water Tower Place recently scored its own big get on that front. In April, the world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago surprised everyone and moved from a temporary home on the North Side into the mall’s fourth floor.

For years, shopping in a lively context was enough “juice” to bring in both serious shoppers, curious shoppers, and other visitors. Shopping was one of the most popular activities for Americans and the glamor of a downtown mall plus at least a decent-sized crowd would make it feel exciting.

Now that shopping is decoupled from physical space, these former shopping spaces do not have enough “juice.” They need more experiences, ranging from music to arts to unusual sights to places where people can post intriguing social media images.

Can cities and communities be flexible enough to shift spaces and experiences? And how many experiential areas can there be? On the first question, communities need to open to how spaces might be used in different ways when conditions change. Shopping malls may have worked for decades and brought in significant revenue, but when they struggle, what is next? For the second question, Chicago already has some of these experiential spaces: Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, a Riverwalk, and other concentrations of interesting activity. Can these work together in that a visitor could access several of these in a single day or trip or at some point do they start competing against each other?

The decline of in-person shopping is a big deal and a shift that many communities are struggling to address. Those who find successful alternative uses for these shopping spaces and also develop a mindset of needing to refresh certain places may just come out ahead.

Target on The Magnificent Mile is preferable to empty retail space

With reports of Target’s interest in moving to Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I heard some concern about such a normal big box retailer moving into a prestigious retail space. Here is the problem for Chicago and many other communities facing retail vacancies: filling space can be really hard.

Google Street View image August 2019

Brick-and-mortar retailers are not doing well overall. This extends from suburban shopping malls to high-status locations like Manhattan or downtown Chicago.

And this issue is not just about shopping and what people can purchase. Busy retail anchors a number of important activities: sales tax and property tax revenue for municipalities; tourism or visitors from other communities who want to come spend money because of the scene; restaurants and other land uses that cater to those out for a shopping trip. Vacant structures do not just lack these features; their emptiness is also a blight, a suggestion that corporate and visitor interest is low, a reminder that the property is not generating the kind of revenue it could.

Filling large retail spaces is no easy task. Many communities are struggling with this and seeking other land uses (recent examples here and here). A building with some sort of activity, even if it is a downgrade in terms of status, is preferable to no activity. The Magnificent Mile might not seem so magnificent with Target – people can find this shopping all over the place – but it beats becoming The Vacant Mile.

Considering how to better connect Chicago’s “Cultural Mile”

Chicago Tribune arts critic Chris Jones suggests Chicago’s “cultural mile” is not connected well:

Like many such districts, congressional and otherwise, the Chicago Cultural Mile is an inherently artificial entity — Chicago self-evidently has many a cultural mile — designed to promote specific business and nonprofit interests and, of course, designed not to impinge on the jurisdiction of others. The reason for the weird turns is to link such big lakefront museums as the Field Museum of Natural History in the “mile” along with such Michigan Avenue anchors as the Art Institute, the Spertus center and Millennium Park. John W. McCarter Jr., the former president of the Field, joined the board of the nonprofit Chicago Cultural Mile Association last week along with Frank P. Novel of Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust. The association, a hitherto snoozey but apparently growing nonprofit, also announced the hiring of its first full-time executive director, Sharene Shariatzadeh.

Let’s stipulate that the weird trajectory of the Chicago Cultural Mile is indicative of a problem in cultural Chicago, which McCarter knows as well as anyone: the continued lack of a graceful, logical curve (be it path, rail or road) to get visitors from Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium in a way that does not confound the visitors. Some variation of a graceful curve — as distinct from a counter-intuitive, traffic-dodging series of right-angled turns on streets with a surfeit of concrete — is needed. There are many reasons for the current financial duress at the Field, but one under-acknowledged factor is the renovation of Soldier Field, which made the museum seem more of its own island, far more distant, far harder to reach, if only in people’s heads.

But that’s not a reason for the Cultural Mile to leave Michigan Avenue.

Motor Row, its natural destination, sits right next to the McCormick Place convention center, a crucial economic generator that was built without an obvious emotional link to its city — a disdain for urban context that extracts a heavy price. Fixing up Motor Row is the best way to change that. As the Tribune reported last fall, things are already happening: The Seattle-based food-circus hybrid known as Teatro ZinZanni is eyeing the ‘hood for its long-anticipated Chicago branch. The band Cheap Trick is planning a venue and museum. There is talk of hotels and restaurants. A nearby stop on the Green Line is coming.

Jones is suggesting there are three major issues at stake here:

1. The first issue is that there is not a coherent physical connection between these spaces. They exist in proximity to each other but there is not public space that would encourage visitors to travel between them. This is an urban planning issue.

2. The second issue is marketing and selling this stretch as a coherent grouping. Even without a good layout, how many visitors to Chicago know this grouping exists? While the northern end of Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River, is well known and visited, this area could use more promotion.

3. A third concern is that this cultural mile could be still expanded to include interesting existing places. As Jones notes, McCormick Place doesn’t really interact with the nearby area even as it attracts thousands of visitors so a nearby site that would attract visitors could be very lucrative and useful.

As someone who has visited this stretch numerous times, I would add another caveat. To get from Michigan Avenue to the museum campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium), the most direct route is to cut southeast from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street through Millennium Park and Grant Park and over to Lake Michigan. This route takes advantage of one of Chicago’s great features: its parks along the lake. However, cutting through the park, getting away from the traffic, and enjoying the nature and different energy of the parks means that I miss out on what is going on along Michigan Avenue. If the city wants more people to follow Michigan Avenue south, does this necessarily mean diverting people away from the parks?

How to respond to the demise of Borders

With negative business news about the bookstore Borders, a number of commentators have weighed in with opinions about how to respond. On one hand, Borders is a big box bookstore that helped push independent and smaller bookstores out of business. On the other hand, the demise of Borders suggests that bookstores in general are on the way out in favor of online retailers.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich writes about how the closing of the Borders store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago affects the shopping district:

By Saturday, Borders’ marquee Chicago store, at 830 N. Michigan Ave., will be closed for good. And — here’s what I think is the real news — the city’s premier shopping street will be without any bookstore for the first time in decades…

Borders was hardly a landmark on par with the old limestone Water Tower that stands just outside the store’s windowed walls. It had occupied its prime corner for only 16 years, barely a blip in Chicago history.

But 16 years is half an eternity in retail time, and Borders had come to seem as basic to the street as traffic.

Back in 1995, when it opened, spinning through its revolving doors was like stepping into a literary Oz, a unique place that, even though part of a chain, pulsed with ideas, people, cappuccino.

Even people who sniffled that it was killing smaller bookstores — most memorably the cozy shop just up the street run by the legendary Stuart Brent — came for the books and the buzz.

I myself have spent a good amount of time in this store, browsing books and music. This location was a nice change of pace from the typical retail store (clothing, in particular), a place to get out of the heat or the cold, watch people go by on Michigan Avenue, and enjoy browsing.

Instapundit provides a different perspective. After some comments about how Borders leftist leanings might have driven some customers away, Instapundit quotes an email from a reader who cites the irony of people lamenting the end of Borders:

Is this — like much of the newspaper industry — a case of the leftist 20% of the populace chasing a way a lot of potential customers over politics? Or is it mostly just technology and convenience?

STILL MORE: Reader Gary Rice has thoughts on the sudden onslaught of Borders-nostalgia:

Re; Borders…. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Borders and Barnes & Noble were the bad guys? Corporate behemoths destroying the local independent bookstore with their Wal Mart like pricing models ? Wasn’t there even a Tom Hanks romance movie about this exact subject?

So Amazon comes along with a better pricing model and now we are all supposed to mourn liberal Borders’ demise? It is a wonder these people remember how to read, because they sure can’t remember anything else….

Heh.

A good point: can we lament the end of Borders today after criticizing it for over a decade? Perhaps we can: bookstores could be considered “third places,” a middle location between home and work where citizens could gather to read the news, talk to each other, and shop. I suspect there will always be people who like going to bookstores (I will still enjoy it though I’m not sure I would go out of my way to go there) but perhaps they simply can’t survive on the scale and size of a Borders or Barnes & Noble.

These sorts of strange juxtapositions may one major marker of our globalized and fast-paced economy. Do we want any bookstore or a big box bookstore or an online bookstore or an independent bookstore? People vote with their dollars and visits and within twenty years, the entire landscape can change.

But I doubt we would see the same kind of mourning if Walmart suddenly went out of business in favor of online retailers. There is something unique here about bookstores.

Plans to revamp Navy Pier

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin takes a look at new plans to revamp Navy Pier. Overall, Kamin argues the plans lack coherence even as they offer a few nice ideas:

That’s what’s missing from the new report: A bold design framework for the future of the 3,300-foot-long pier (above, in its current state), which was envisioned by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, completed in 1916, and remains Chicago’s top tourist attraction, even if it’s not as popular as it used to be.

Drawn up for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate developers’ group, the report unveiled Wednesday has a certain urgency because Navy Pier’s annual attendance has fallen to 8 million from a peak of 9 million in 2000.

But the report’s principal recommendations lack flashes of insight about the great public work, which originally consisted of classically-inspired buildings framing freight and passenger sheds. The sheds disappeared as part of the pier’s $225 million makeover, completed in 1995.

My complaints about the space would be a little different and not focus so much on the design. My main issue is that it is primarily a tourist attraction that has little revisit value and is not connected enough to other Chicago attractions like Michigan Avenue or the Chicago River. As a tourist destination, it doesn’t actually offer much to do – the stores are limited, there are limited eating opportunities, attractions like the Ferris Wheel aren’t something you would come back to several times a year, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a great performing space but doesn’t add much to the atmosphere. Additionally, Navy Pier is a bit of a walk from Michigan Avenue which features much more interesting shops and restaurants.

The contrast I would draw with Navy Pier is Millennium Park. The park doesn’t cost anything (outside of some concerts, ice skating, and food) but has attractive elements: interesting design, some great gardens to walk through, and great people-watching opportunities, as people converge from the train stations, State Street, Michigan Avenue, and the lakefront. Most of all, the park is not a mall or amusement park, which Navy Pier can often feel like. Millennium Park feels and operates like a real public space, not a controlled commercial environment.

What might be helpful are some low-cost options for boasting interest. Why not have revolving (and interesting) art displays or themes? Why not have more street performances? Why not work on connecting the Navy Pier streetscape with Michigan Avenue so it doesn’t require a drive to the overpriced Navy Pier garage? Navy Pier needs to offer more unique and cheap features that tourists and others can’t find elsewhere in Chicago.