Life's unexpected detours aren't always a bad thing. Just ask Ty Tabing.
The man behind the rebirth of State Street fell in love with Chicago two decades ago when a cross-country road trip gone bad left him stranded in the Windy City for three weeks with nothing to do.
Wichita State University driving across the U.S., exploring life beyond Kansas. But the trip came to an abrupt halt after the friends totaled the car during a stop in Barrington to visit relatives. The men walked away from the wreck unscathed but without transportation.
Ever the optimist, Tabing refocused the adventure on Chicago, where public transportation was plentiful. Little did he know that those three weeks would shape his future.
"We lived the life of Ferris Bueller," Tabing said. "We went to a Cubs game, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute. We toured the Loop. These were three kids from Kansas showing up in the big city. We were a little taken aback by the pace, by the energy and everything else. We loved it."
The city seeped into Tabing's psyche that summer. Not even a season as a ski bum in Vail, Colo., or a stint as a legislative assistant in Washington for his hometown congressman, Dan Glickman, could keep Tabing from putting down roots in Chicago.
Today, Tabing, 44, is known as the unofficial ambassador for Chicago's Loop.
As executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, Tabing spends his days and nights (he lives in a high-rise across from Macy's State Street flagship) working to revive what was once one of the city's most overlooked tourist assets: the historic commercial downtown center loosely defined by the elevated train tracks that circle around the central business district.
His influence on the Loop's makeup began 14 years ago when he was an urban planner and tax increment financing expert at City Hall. He was the city's point man on bringing Sears back to State Street. He pinned down the North Riverside Plaza office building in the city's campaign to woo Boeing Co.'s corporate headquarters from Seattle, an undertaking bolstered by the fact his father had been a truck driver at Boeing's Wichita plant. And he helped create the city's financial assistance plan for converting the historic Fisher Building on South Dearborn Street from offices to luxury apartments.
"I feel like Ty is the kind of person who could be a multimillionaire, but he's got a civic heart," said Meredith O'Connor, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago-based commercial real estate services firm and a former colleague of Tabing's at City Hall. "You would never now that Ty wasn't born and raised here."
During his seven-year run with the city, Tabing reviewed real estate developers' proposals, crunched numbers and found new uses for old buildings. He slogged through various iterations of plans for Block 37, now built but only partially occupied. As the assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, he was the government's liaison with the Greater State Street Council, the membership organization at the time for businesses in the Loop.
The sleepy organization kept the sidewalks clean and the medians landscaped, but it paled in comparison to the bigger and glitzier Greater North Michigan Avenue Association across the river. When the council's executive director post opened in 2004, Tabing left the city position to take the job.
One of his first moves was to expand. Within his first year, he folded the Central Michigan Avenue Association, a similar membership group for merchants on the east side of the Loop, into the Greater State Street Council to create the Chicago Loop Alliance.
"When I started, friends were saying the organization is dying," Tabing said. "I said the area has a lot of potential to become a bigger, stronger organization."
State Street, the city's first major shopping district, had lost is cachet to North Michigan Avenue in the 1970s. The street fell another notch when the city closed the thoroughfare to automobile traffic from 1979 to 1996 in an ill-conceived attempt to create a pedestrian-friendly outdoor shopping mall. Block 37, a prime piece of land, stymied a string of developers eager to build on the empty parcel. By the turn of the millennium, State Street was on the mend during the workday as office workers ate lunch and shopped, but it was a ghost town at night.
In recent years, the Loop has come alive at night and on weekends, spurred in large part by events
Tabing has created. Among them: the dusk-until-dawn party called Looptopia in 2007 and 2008, and Art Loop Open, a major visual arts competition in collaboration with the Chicago Artists Coalition.
When retailers were shutting stores in the depths of the recession, Tabing persuaded landlords to let local artists transform vacant downtown storefronts into temporary galleries. The program, dubbed Pop-Up Art Loop, began in 2009 when scores of empty spaces dotted the Loop. It continues even as retail tenancy improves.
The newest pop-up art exhibit is planned for this month on State Street at the former Borders, which has been vacant since the bookseller went out of business during the summer.
Tabing also stirred up public art discussion by bringing Oak Park artist Tony Tasset's giant "Eye" sculpture to Pritzker Park. The three-story eyeball, made of steel and fiberglass, was spotlighted in the fall in National Geographic Kids' standing feature, "Extreme Weirdness from Around the World."
But not all grand ideas go smoothly.
Last year, the Art Loop Open competition received criticism about how votes were counted. The public was invited to vote on favorite pieces of art, but the event veered into controversial territory when one artist was disqualified for allegedly violating rules against self-promotion. The artist was later reinstated.
And the Loop alliance's initial Lightscape installation, unveiled in November, has had a few snags. The clusters of pipe-shaped light sculptures in heights to 9 feet are programmed to turn on and off in sync with recorded music. But there have been times, including during a stretch of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when the speakers have gone out.
The Lightscape is scheduled to take on a Valentine's Day theme, "Love Songs and Lights," Tuesday through Feb. 17. There will be love songs playing along State Street for 30 days, and a contest to play a romantic song dedicated to a loved one every hour starting Valentine's Day.
Obstacles are part of the deal when pushing for change, Tabing said.
Taking a few hits to advance his agenda comes naturally to the former high school linebacker. But making the leap from public servant to leader of a business association was an awkward fit at first, Tabing said.
With a graduate degree from the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, he was more comfortable tackling financial reports and Excel spreadsheets than creating branding and marketing campaigns.
So he decided to think big again.
At the organization's first annual meeting under his leadership, Tabing made a presentation that surprised the scores of members gathered in a hotel ballroom for lunch.
An urban design firm from New York, hired by Tabing, had come up with some innovative ways to dress up the Loop. Among their more outlandish ideas: create a recreational "Bucky Beach" by moving the lakefront closer to Buckingham Fountain, and turn the "L" tracks into a roller coaster to allow for a better view of the billowing curves of Frank Gehry's concert pavilion at Millennium Park.
Tabing never expected the city to build a beach across Lake Shore Drive or turn the "L" into a theme park ride. And the design firm had many practical ideas, including installing signs to better direct Millennium Park tourists westward to the shopping along State Street.
But the presentation accomplished its goal: It drew incredulous chuckles and sparked conversations about fresh ways to approach the long-standing question of how to draw visitors from North Michigan Avenue and the lakefront to shops and restaurants and theater in the Loop.
"He looks at shaking things up, and that makes people think differently," said Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a Loop Alliance member who attended that first meeting. "Design solutions start by bounding off the walls, and eventually it gets pragmatic. It loosens hinges and allows people to think big."
Tabing had the good fortune of taking his current job just as Millennium Park opened. The $475 million public park, with its free concerts and stunning architecture and gardens, attracted more than 4 million visitors last year and sparked a condominium building boom.
His goal is to pull as many of those Millennium Park visitors as possible west into the Loop's interior. He would like to see more lights, especially on State Street and along the "L" on Wabash Avenue and Lake Street, to make the Loop more appealing to tourists walking in unfamiliar territory. He is having lunches with potential donors to raise money for an art installation next summer. And he is in the midst of a project to install an interactive kiosk at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street to mark the starting point of the famous Route 66 historic highway.
"A lot of not-for-profits do the same thing over and over again," said Lori Healey, a principal at Chicago-based real estate developer John Buck Co. who knew Tabing when she was former Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff. "Ty pushes the envelope all the time. He's really contributed a lot to the cultural status of State Street. It's a whole neighborhood now."
Executive director, Chicago Loop Alliance
Personal: Single. "I came out when I finished grad school at 25. It's nice living in a city like Chicago where most people don't give a damn."
Life after work: Known for throwing great, impromptu parties at his Loop condo. "If you live downtown, everybody wants to go to your house and hang out after work."
Latest building to save: The Bakers Shoes building at 133 S. State St., originally Chandler's Shoes. Tabing stepped in as negotiator between the city and the developer, New York-based Thor Equities, to preserve some of the building's historic 1940s storefront.
Life under Mayor Rahm Emanuel: One of 17 people named to the new mayor's transition committee on government reinvention and budget. Hosted a committee brainstorming session in his home that went late into the evening.
What's next: "As much as I love this city, it's a big world out there, and I'm intrigued by a lot of other cities. I love San Francisco and New York and Asheville (N.C.). We'll see how it goes. I can see myself in the next couple years relocating. It's in my DNA either to work for a city or in a quasi-governmental capacity."
The famous Route 66 highway starts in the Loop, at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street. It ends 2,500 miles later, in Los Angeles.
The first Chicago liquor license was issued to Berghoff's in 1933.
The Loop is the largest college town in Illinois, with more than 65,000 students.
More than 300,000 people come to work in the Loop each day.
SOURCE: Chicago Loop Alliance
Ty Tabing, executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance