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Experts Say The Magnificent Mile Got Boring And Needs A Reset

Chicago's Magnificent Mile shopping district got boring and will need big changes if it is going to thrive again. That was one conclusion from the Urban Land Institute, which convened an expert panel last year to identify what ails the district and how to fix it, according to a report in Crain’s Chicago Business.

Chicago's Magnificent Mile

The past few years have been especially tough on the Mag Mile, where retailers first watched the rise of e-commerce and then the coronavirus take bites out of their customer base. A series of high-profile crimes along Michigan Avenue and several surrounding streets added to retailers’ woes, as well as the permanent loss of major tenants such as Macy’s, Uniqlo and Gap.

The ULI panel of real estate professionals, urban planners, architects and other experts just issued its recommendations, based on a survey of about 60 neighborhood stakeholders. All of those stakeholders said changing the street’s reputation as a magnet for crime will be essential.

“Without a more concerted effort to reduce actual crime and the perception of it, any revitalization strategies are not likely to have a significant impact,” the ULI report said.

The ULI experts recommend a more visible police presence, perhaps on horseback, as well as adding more security cameras to the street. ULI also said the Mag Mile needs a new media strategy to counter the common perception that shoppers and pedestrians aren’t safe from criminals.

Empty storefronts now plague the street. The vacancy rate for retail is 24.7%, according to Cushman & Wakefield data cited by Crain’s, more than double the rate of four years ago. Some owners have decided to bail out. Macerich, a Santa Monica, California-based REIT, early this year handed over its share in The Shops at North Bridge, one of the district’s largest retail destinations, to its partner, the Alaska Permanent Fund.

The ULI experts also called out Mag Mile’s homogeneity. Instead of a unique collection of shops, restaurants and other attractions that could draw curious shoppers and tourists looking for something different, the street is lined with cookie-cutter retailers.

“Most retailers on North Michigan Avenue can be found in any sizable suburban mall, and merchandising is largely identical to what shoppers can find elsewhere, including online,” according to the report. “Dining and entertainment options are also limited.”

ULI envisions building a bridge connecting Michigan Avenue with Oak Street Beach and the lakefront, creating a public plaza south of Water Tower Place and transforming Michigan Avenue’s sidewalks into places where people can stop and linger, whether at new street-level restaurants or pocket plazas with public seating.

“Doing so would ‘erode the wall’ at the street level, visually connecting the street to the buildings along it and creating a lively, inviting environment for customers and passers-by,” according to the report.