Loop Alliance offers ideas to spruce up Wabash

Is Wabash Avenue ready for a makeover?

Among the dozens of fanciful ideas suggested over the past year for how to transform Wabash Avenue into a more inviting corridor, Martin Stern, chairman of the Chicago Loop Alliance, joked that his favorite entailed putting a bump in the "L" tracks to make it feel like a roller coaster.

Unfortunately, that idea is not among the 30 projects that the Chicago Loop Alliance, the organization that promotes the downtown business district, presented Friday as part of its final recommendations for how to improve Wabash, a relatively underperforming street crucially located between Michigan Avenue and State Street.

With the clattering "L" overhead, Wabash is one of Chicago's most iconic streets — but its charm is also its challenge. Dark, loud and with a reputation for housing more rodents than flowers in its planters, Wabash has suffered higher vacancy rates and lower office rents than other parts of downtown.

To raise the historic street to its potential and help draw tourists from Millennium Park to the State Street shopping district and beyond, the Chicago Loop Alliance for months has conducted research, solicited online feedback and held community meetings to determine how to improve the stretch of Wabash from Wacker Drive to Congress Parkway.

Among the 30 ideas were:

•Branding the street as a "maker district" to emphasize its craftsmen, such as Jeweler's Row, and encourage new makers, like designers, to set up shop there.

•Adding bright lights at intersections and LED lighting under the "L" tracks.

•Creating a pop-up shipping container district at Van Buren Street and Jackson Boulevard to give temporary locations for new concepts.

•Installing the retro Wabash lampposts along cross streets to create a path for pedestrians from Michigan Avenue.

•Enhancing some planters and repurposing others along the southern part of the corridor near the cluster of universities for more artistic opportunities, such as stages.

The Chicago Loop Alliance plans to release a final report with recommendations next month, and will then pursue private funding, grants, and public and private partnerships to implement the ideas. The Loop Alliance also may propose a new special taxing area for Wabash Avenue to fund the improvements, or it may reintroduce a proposal to expand its special State Street taxing area to include Wabash, said Executive Director Mike Edwards.

The initiative comes as Wabash faces some important opportunities and challenges, including the planned opening in December of a Virgin Hotel at Lake Street and construction of a dramatic new "L" station at Washington Street, which will begin in the spring.

The businesses along Jeweler's Row have expressed concerns about how the 18 months of CTA construction will affect them, as they rely on valet services for suburban customers. Construction of Bus Rapid Transit lines at the same time could compound problems.

About three dozen representatives from businesses and institutions on and around Wabash attended Friday's meeting. Many expressed excitement.

"When you think about the life of the concertgoer, it's not just a Michigan Avenue experience," said Vanessa Moss, vice president for orchestra and building operations at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The darkness on Wabash can be intimidating, she said.

"The lighting will be a huge help," she said.

aelejalderuiz@tribune.com

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
44°