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Public spaces to lighten up Wabash Avenue planned under 'L' tracks

European-style public plazas are coming to an area of the Loop where they're least expected: a gritty stretch of Wabash Avenue known more for the boisterous rumble of elevated trains than relaxed conversation.

Later this year, the Chicago| Loop Alliance plans to unveil new public spaces flanking each end of the CTA's new Washington/Wabash train station, which is set to open Thursday.

In doing so, the group hopes to attract more tourists, shoppers and diners to a street that — because of the elevated tracks' canyonlike effect — many visitors to the city see as dark, grungy and imposing.

The Loop Alliance's plan follows a wave of restaurant openings on Wabash in recent years that have helped make the area a popular lunch destination. Restaurants on the street, many of them fast-casual chains, include Good Stuff Eatery, Goddess and the Baker, Halal Guys, Peach and Green, Capriotti's, Nando's Peri-Peri, Protein Bar and Naf Naf Grill.

The organization hopes new outdoor spaces and easier-to-understand intersections will further boost businesses in the area. In particular, the alliance hopes to draw in more of the city's visitors, who often view the "L" tracks as an invisible barrier between popular destinations.

"It's an evolving street, and we're trying to nudge it a little faster," said Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Loop Alliance, which is funding the street improvements. "There's all this energy in Millennium Park and all this energy on State Street. (Wabash is) dark, and it kind of divides those energy-filled areas of the Loop. We would like Wabash to connect the energy of those two areas."

The new train station is expected to be the fifth-busiest in the entire CTA system, making this an ideal time to bring new amenities to the street, Edwards said.

Changes to the streetscape, designed by architecture firm Gensler, are also intended to improve safety, said Gensler principal Dave Broz, who is working on the project and was chair of the Loop Alliance until February.

Because of the way the "L" columns straddle the street, there is confusion over which portions of the street are open to car traffic and which areas are for pedestrians. There is curbside parking along much of the street, but not near intersections, creating some areas where cars turn as pedestrians are stepping into the street in anticipation of the light changing.

The two new plazas are expected to open at Wabash's southwest intersection with Randolph Street and, a block south, at the northwest corner of Washington Street. After seeing how the spaces are received, the Loop Alliance may look to add others.

The design will create public spaces that jut out from the sidewalks into areas under the "L" tracks where there is no parking. The plazas will have tables and chairs and will be surrounded by protective bollards. The wide plazas will also shorten the length of crosswalks, making them safer, Broz said.

Conversation may be a challenge with trains passing overhead, he acknowledged. But the noise, building stock and unique businesses such as jewelry shops can also be an attraction, he said.

"The architecture of the street is gorgeous," Broz said. "If we can create places for people to pause and contemplate, in turn they'll realize there are amazing businesses on the street, including Jewelers Row. Wabash is a quintessential Chicago experience."

Additions of gathering spots follow other efforts by the Loop Alliance and 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly to liven up the area, including a streamlined process for Wabash restaurants to add outdoor seating. It's part of a broader effort by the city to create more public outdoor spaces, including the Riverwalk and the nearby pedestrian island with seats and tables in the State Street median between Wacker Drive and Lake Street.

Restaurants have poured onto Wabash because of rents lower than those on Michigan Avenue and State Street, the rise of Millennium Park as the state's top tourist attraction, increased downtown population and new hotels such as the Chicago Athletic Association and Virgin, said retail broker John Vance, a principal at Chicago-based Stone Real Estate.

"It's loud under the train, but there are a lot of people getting off at those train stations, so it's bringing people to your doorstep," Vance said of doing business on the street. "It's a little bit darker and a little bit grittier, but Fulton Market is really hot right now. Grit is in."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the new plazas as being on the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Washington Street.

rori@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Ryan_Ori

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