Monday, March 16, 2009

The de-mall-ition of State St.

Thinking about Chicago St. Patrick's Days of yore made me think about State Street and the former State Street Mall, that failed 70s attempt to attract shoppers back to "that great street".

In case you don't remember, the Loop experienced a serious decline in retail business during the sixties and seventies. The causes were many, not the least of which was the construction of suburban shopping malls. With the "if you can't beat 'em join em" spirit, city planners and officials joined cities all over the country and set into motion what turned out to be a well intentioned flop that not only failed to stop the hemorrhaging , but at least to most critics, exacerbated it.

The removal of the Mall in 1996 is credited with bringing life back to the Loop. In a recent article, the Boston Globe uses this as justification for returning automobile traffic back to Downtown Crossing, the pedestrian mall that closed off Washington Street to traffic in Downtown Boston.

Although I agree that getting rid of the mall of State Street was a good thing, I would probe a little deeper before rushing to judgment in removing these things elsewhere. Here are my recollections of the SSM:

First of all, having been constructed during the nadir of architecture in the US, the 1970s, the State Street Mall was terribly designed, implemented and constructed. The sidewalk was made of flagstones that were never properly laid giving it an undulating effect. Friends referred to it as the State Street Wide Sidewalk because little seemed to have changed, other than having replaced a perfectly good sidewalk with a crappy one.

Secondly, only private vehicles were banned, busses and municipal vehicles still used State Street. Unlike Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis where one, maybe two buses drove through every minute, here there was a continuous flow of them.

While the wider sidewalks reduced the density of pedestrian traffic, the narrower street increased the vehicular density. Ironically the overall effect was more vehicles and fewer pedestrians.
As the devil is in the details, they replaced distinctive vintage 50s metal streamlined subway entrances with awkward vintage 70s ones complete with plastic bubble tops. The whole thing just looked bad.

During the lifetime of the SSM, Sear's, Goldblatts, Montgomery Wards, Wieboldt's, Bond's, Baskin's and other stores all closed up shop on State Street. So did theaters and other smaller businesses.

The area became desolate especially at night, and people assumed (wrongly) that the Loop had a particularly high crime rate.

Leaving the question, had the mall not been built, would things have been different?

I don't think so. I believe that the trend away from downtown was inevitable given the growing dependence on the automobile. For basic shopping, why drive downtown, pay for parking and schlepp around in the elements when you could go to the burbs, park for free, and do all your shopping under one roof?

That was the logic of the time pure and simple. And it still is.

The mistake I believe was that the planners thought urban downtowns could compete at the same game as the suburban shopping malls, which of course was impossible. Once they realized that the city offered an experience that the cookie cutter malls couldn't, they got back on the right track.

But getting back to the State Street Mall and its failings; in retrospect I don't think it was such a bad thing. While North Michigan Avenue just a few blocks away was undergoing a renaissance at the time, the city could have easily turned its back on State Street in the Loop.

It didn't.

Reducing the use of private automobiles and encouraging public transit is a good thing. It just wasn't realized very well on the SSM.

What could have happened was a major overhaul in the design and infrastructure of the Loop as happened in Downtown Milwaukee. There they built a full scale indoor shopping mall called the Grand Avenue. They turned Wisconsin Avenue, the equivalent of State Street, inside out, putting all of the storefronts inside, away from the street. Parking was easily accessible if not free. The thing was a success when it was built in the 80s but today it has become tired and faded. Consequently no storefronts remain on Wisconsin Ave. and there is little or no life remaining on what was once a vibrant street.

At least Chicago's (pardon the expression) half-ass solution enabled the city to return State Street back into a street, if not to its former glory, yet anyway.

Still the return of the automobile did not prevent Carson Pirie Scott from closing its historic flagship store on State Street a couple of years ago.

In Boston people are split over the decision to open up Washington Street. Filene's is gone, business is down, some blame it on the mall and think returning the automobile will bring back business.

Here in Chicago, much of the development in the Loop has been residential not retail. Michigan Avenue not State Street remains Chicago's premier retail thoroughfare. Cities all across the country are experiencing similar issues with their downtowns, walking malls or not.

From my experience, Chicago's Loop is better off than most downtowns across the US.

But I don't believe that returning private cars to State Street is the reason.

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