From The Chicago Tribune: The Michigan Avenue crisis is getting worse

It’s not safe to walk down Michigan Avenue with a Tiffany bag anymore.

On April 2, the Tribune published a letter from a suburban reader who had visited the Tiffany & Co. jewelry store on Michigan Avenue and made a modest purchase, in part so his granddaughter could enjoy the cachet of the signature turquoise gift bag. But before the reader left the store, the clerk discreetly placed the bag in a more anonymous sack. The implication? It’s not safe to walk down Michigan Avenue with a Tiffany bag anymore.

That anecdote focuses the mind on the perception of high crime bedeviling what long has been known as the Midwest’s most prestigious shopping destination. And it’s surely behind some of the distressing news about its signature properties, including the decision this week by Brookfield Properties, a mall owner, to walk away from the Water Tower Place shopping center, once one of the most successful malls in the world and now a property in distress. The mall now will be run by its lender, MetLife Investment Management.

A security worker near the front entrance to the Tiffany & Co. store in the 700 block of North Michigan Avenue on Dec. 8, 2021.
A security worker near the front entrance to the Tiffany & Co. store in the 700 block of North Michigan Avenue on Dec. 8, 2021. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Water Tower Place’s problems are complex and multifaceted: Foot traffic declines resulting both from the move to online retailing and changes caused by the pandemic have made so-called vertical malls tough going. Shoppers are no longer as willing to climb to the upper floors.

Of course, it does not feel long since shoppers were willing to go anywhere at Water Tower Place: Teens rode the glass elevators looking for Abercrombie & Fitch on a high floor and the innovative Foodlife attracted hordes of people to the lower level, late into the night.

You could traverse the mall inside Macy’s department store, heading up within Macy’s and then down in the mall itself. What mattered was the footprint of the place. Water Tower Place was on aspirational Michigan Avenue, and its success spawned all kinds of retail excitement across and down the street.

Macy’s is no more, Foodlife quietly disappeared with little media notice, and the loss of tenants has proved pernicious. It’s the same story farther south on Michigan, where other buildings are struggling to survive, and the once-glittering Shops at North Bridge, commonly known as the Nordstrom mall, is flailing.

According to the Urban Land Institute, the vacancy rate on Michigan Avenue stands close to a troubling 25%. Chicago is losing significant sales tax revenue.

The world only spins forward, and we’ve written before about how the declining fortunes of Michigan Avenue have been mirrored by the rising fortunes of the West Loop, where they also pay sales tax. That said, twiddling thumbs of denial at the crisis on Michigan Avenue is hardly an option for the city.

What to do? Improving the perception of safety obviously is crucial, but the city has to find subtler means of doing so than parking cruisers in the middle of the street, lights flashing, which signals an environment that is not compatible with a gentle evening stroll to do some shopping.

The Urban Land Institute report has other good ideas, including an upgrade in dining options. Michigan Avenue never has been hospitable to restaurants, especially on the ground floor, a function of high rents and canyon-like ambience. That’s also true on New York’s Fifth Avenue but was never the case on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, where you can sip and watch people promenade.

Similarly, the proximity to Lake Michigan has never been adequately exploited. Visitors can be a block away from the water and yet never know. So we applaud any attempts, such as a new bridge or viewing area, to link the street to its lakeside environment, especially at the north end, where traffic overcomes the pedestrian experience around the Drake Hotel, a crucial anchor, now more than ever.

The report also heralds the arrival of so-called interactive experiences, such as the Instagram-y Museum of Ice Cream, soon to open. So far, though, Michigan Avenue has not found enough must-see attractions of that kind, and it has to compete with Navy Pier and other locations that might offer more space and potential customers. In essence, the street still has to differentiate itself from other locations and maintain its aspirational status, however the tastes of its customers have changed.

Bring on public and private investment. Michigan Avenue is far more important to the future of Chicago than any single casino, currently sucking up media coverage. Michigan Avenue has history, beauty and prestige. It long has been the great showcase of the Midwest. Chicago cannot let it forfeit that crown.

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