A year after the city saw downtown workplaces and small businesses shutter due to the state’s ongoing stay at home orders, Loop stakeholders are hatching a plan to bring people back into the heart of the central business district in way that provides a safe environment to gather and experience cultural programming.
The Chicago Loop Alliance recently unveiled a proposal to shut down the stretch of State Street between Lake and Madison streets to vehicle traffic each Sunday for up to 12 weeks. The idea would be to allow for a large, open pedestrian space to shop, eat, and engage with live music and other events.
According to Kalindi Parikh, director of planning with the Chicago Loop Alliance, the organization envisions closures happening between 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., with programming and activities taking place from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
If the initiative moves forward, it will be the first time since the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Loop Alliance co-hosted the Open Streets on State Street program a decade ago. But so far, Parikh says that the proposal has received a warm reception from downtown business owners and city leaders.
The proposal comes at a good time, as the city has currently been considering loosening restrictions on outdoor activities and events for this summer.
However, those who might recall the State Street of the ’70s and fear a repeat need not worry, Parikh suggests.
“People have a lot of anxiety and nerves about the term pedestrianizing, especially when it comes to State Street because of its brief stint as a pedestrian mall that didn’t go so well,” Parikh says. “This is totally different because it’s about sharing the street and it’s a temporary use — it’s programmed and gives people a reason to be downtown on one particular day at a particular time and to engage with cultural partners.”
Over the years, the Chicago Loop Alliance has coordinated a number of outdoor activities and programs, most recently its ACTIVATE pop-up series of music and events in alleys and underutilized downtown spaces. Moving programming to alleys made sense when the Loop was crowded, Parikh says, but now is the time to try something different.
“I think people miss being downtown and I think we’re starting to see folks slowly return, but to me, this is an opportunity to get people really excited but also comfortable with returning downtown in a way that’s safe and socially distanced and prepared for them so people can remember what they loved so much about the Loop.”
The big challenge this time will be figuring out how to host live events and programming without attracting a large crowd. Unlike previous downtown festivals, which can oftentimes attract hundreds of thousands of people to the Loop, Parikh says that the organization hopes to draw interest back downtown, but in a way that’s responsible.
Safety protocols being discussed include mandatory mask wearing, the installation of hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers, as well as close attention to social distancing.
However, another key theme would also be using the State Street space to showcase performers and artists from neighborhoods around the city. The idea is to bring people back downtown, but for downtown to also serve as a platform for community groups throughout Chicago to remind folks that, as Parikh says, “the Loop really belongs to everyone in Chicago.”
“The cultural activities we’re exploring are more small scale, pop-up surprises, so you might see a dance troop come through or buskers on the street playing their music, so it’d be more like the typical urban experience you have when you’re in a really busy city and you see all of the performers who just happen to be around,” Parikh says of the programming being considered.
“That’s really the kind of energy that we’re looking for but people can experience those performers in a more intimate way without being in a crowded situation.”
Each month, the Chicago Loop Alliance releases reports detailing key metrics on pedestrian traffic, CTA ridership, hotel stays, parking, and office use. Member businesses and organizations are also surveyed about other numbers, such as their operational status and number of employees working downtown.
All measured metrics plummeted last March at the beginning of the pandemic and have ebbed and flowed since. The organization’s February report does indicate a slight uptick in parking, pedestrian activity and office use.
However, the hope is that numbers start to recover this year, and bringing pedestrian traffic in for outdoor programming could help the city’s economic and emotional recovery.