The merchants and property owners who make up the Greater State Street Council have a plan to make State great again. For $60 million, they want to demall State Street, restreet it, repave, replant, and relight it, recar, rethink, and revive it as the heart of a new Loop.

It’s a great plan–for 1985. It sets the table for festival-style retailing long after the party is over. It focuses on private transit in an era when private transit has become problematic. And it threatens to impose on State Street an artificial and constraining set of uses.

Today’s 21-year-olds were just getting their pimples when State Street last was a real street, much less a great one. In its heyday–roughly the three-quarters of a century that ended in the 1960s–department stores were lined up along State Street like berthed battleships: State had the biggest concentration of retail space on the globe.

Since 1979, however, those nine blocks between Wacker and Congress have been a carless “transit mall.” Crain’s Chicago Business calls it a bus barn, which libels bus barns everywhere. Journalists not blessed with large vocabularies have had to go back to their thesauruses to find words to describe it: ugly, depressing, dirty-looking, messy, uninviting. Mayor Daley preferred a plainer taunt: it was a failure.

In 1979 the government was not underwriting shopping malls. It was, however, paying for “transit malls.” The U.S. Department of Transportation ponied up $10 million (out of a total project cost of $17 million) to convert the street between Wacker and Congress into a transit mall a la the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Motorcars were banned and traffic lanes reduced from four to two as CTA buses were rerouted onto State, transforming it into a transfer center for more than a dozen routes. The official purpose of the project was to boost mass-transit use; the unofficial purpose was to boost retail sales. Thus the principal supporters of the 1979 redesign were at cross-purposes from the start.

The new transit mall was yet another good idea from the north–honest government and winter are two others–that Chicago never got quite right. The project was plagued by political favoritism, bureaucratic infighting, and a too-small budget. In short, it was the kind of performance that years ago made many Italians grateful for a Mussolini.

Of course the mall that was supposed to save State Street didn’t. Of the six department stores there when the mall was unveiled in 1979–Sears, Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Wieboldt’s, Field’s, and Carson’s–only Field’s and Carson’s remain. Since 1982 State Street has lost more retail square footage than there is in all of Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall. Lately, retail vacancy rates along the old “ladies’ half mile” are running more than 25 percent.

So it was back to the drawing boards–specifically those of the Chicago architectural firm of Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, engaged in 1987 by the Greater State Street Council to head the redesign effort. Joining Coffey was the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership of Portland, Oregon, nationally known specialists in streetscape design. Their charge: don’t try to reinvent State Street this time, just improve it.

Ernest Brown, the council’s project director for the redesign, describes the resulting blueprint as just a few sensible infrastructure improvements meant to complement the several private developments planned for State Street. But there also exists what Coffey calls the Cadillac version, which calls for major rebuilding of two existing State Street rail stations (the subway station at Washington and the el platform at Lake) and construction of a brand-new el station near the Harold Washington Public Library. Especially engaging are the plans for outfitting the Lake Street el station with an observation deck and expanding the parklike State Street median below it.

The $60 million Chevy version of a redesigned State Street offers little new in the way of actual facilities. There would be some new lighting to highlight historic structures. Intersections would be less cluttered, the trees artfully clumped, the signage thoughtfully coordinated. There are no bus benches on Chicago’s current mall, lest the homeless sleep on them. So the redesign offers a cunning alternative in the form of leaning rails, against which bus passengers may rest but which offer no surface for sitting or reclining. One way or another, the new State Street will be a place filled with upright citizens.

Most of the $60 million basic cost would go for the realignment and resurfacing of State Street and its sidewalks. The success of these aspects of the project depends on the soundness of the assumptions–about people and about retailing–that inform their design.

So let’s talk asphalt.

The State Street mall design assumed that shoppers were flocking to suburban malls because they liked malls, when what people really liked about suburban malls was that they were in the suburbs. More specifically, in suburbs they could drive to. To a postwar generation that grew up dependent on it, the car is much more than a means of transit. Barring people’s physical access to the street by car also blocked their mental access. People who could no longer drive on State Street quickly ceased to see it; it disappeared, wiped off the mental maps of thousands of Chicago-area residents. “The automobile,” explained Coffey to a 1989 breakfast gathering at the Palmer House announcing the new plan, “brings a sense of access and ownership to the street to the general public.”

So in the late 80s, not certain how to go forward, the council decided to go backward and “restreet” State Street. Now the council’s merchants await the return of cars like French villagers awaiting the first GIs in ’45.

Certainly buses don’t have the same appeal. Focus groups convened by the council confirmed that many State Street regulars felt that the street belonged to buses. And buses are not the signal State Street merchants wish to send. To some, the noise and smells and sense of unease caused by the buses lining up along State like camels at a caravansary are yet more inconveniences they must endure for the sake of the very young, the very old, and the poor who dwell in those trackless wastes beyond the el lines.

Obviously buses are noisy and stink and loom menacingly, but the 1979 design also aggravated these effects: the sinuous new curb line that was supposed to recall the curvy streets of the suburban subdivision caused the sidewalks to jut out into traffic in places, so that approaching buses seemed to be heading straight toward pedestrians standing near the curb.

Restreeting thus aims as much to diminish the impact of buses as to increase the presence of cars. According to the plan, new drop-off zones for car passengers would alternate with bus stops on the two-way street. (Converting to every-other-block stops would inconvenience some bus riders, but the CTA already uses such a system on streets like North Michigan.) CTA officials reportedly were worried at first that cars would slow bus travel times, but the plan calls for buses to be given preferential treatment at signalized intersections in the form of a few extra seconds of green light. Of course cars would add to air pollution on the street, but since buses would be making fewer stops, they’d pollute the air less–they belch most of their dirt under the strain of pulling out from a dead stop.

For a time the biggest problem appeared to be not queering the funding agreement with the U.S. DOT, which had stipulated that State give priority to bus traffic until 1999. Happily for the council’s hopes, the opening of the new southwest el line in 1992 will eliminate the need for roughly a third of the buses now using State. That should also help bus travel times, even if cars are allowed back on.

So the experts agree that it’s possible to bring back cars. But as one skeptical Chicago city planner put it to me, cars don’t buy things. Lack of parking is currently as much an impediment to would-be downtown shoppers as lack of access by car. And though it’s true that malls are being ripped out by disillusioned municipalities across the nation and replaced with old-fashioned streets, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that opening once-closed downtown shopping areas to auto traffic boosts sales of anything except asphalt paving. The evidence in favor of restreeting is mostly anecdotal, usually taking the form of “How’s business?” interviews with merchants soon after traffic has resumed. And any analysis of restreeting’s effect is seldom correlated with larger retail trends, indeed with any external factors.

Sales did rise very modestly in Oak Park in the first months of 1990, just after Lake Street was reopened to cars as part of a $2.7 million “restreeting” of the 1974 downtown mall. But since then retail vacancy rates have improved only slightly, and a major retailer (Baskin’s) has closed. The increase in sales may be explained by the recent conversion of vacant retail space to office use, which increased Lake Street’s population of daytime shoppers.

Dick Hocking, vice-president of Evanston’s nationally regarded consulting firm, Barton-Aschman, is a traffic consultant to the State Street merchants. Hocking says, “I’ve not seen any cause-effect data that would pin down” the relationship between restreeting and sales.

Still, one faction of the council’s membership sees compelling evidence of restreeting’s energizing effects on trade only a block away. Relatively speaking, retailing is thriving on nearby Wabash, in an environment that contradicts every tenet of conventional streetscape design. Wabash is dark and noisy and dirty. It offers passersby no trees or seating as State Street does, and its ambience is closer to that of a neighborhood shopping district than North Michigan Avenue.

But here the explanation is not cars but costs. State Street retail rents are among the highest in the Loop, but space on Wabash is much cheaper. This is partly because of the el, and partly because rents on Wabash were never geared to volume sales like the rents on State. Smaller chains and locally owned and specialty stores thus can afford to rent on Wabash, which is why it is home to lots of interesting stores that make going there worth it despite the ambience.

“Design doesn’t drive the market,” said a skeptical developer at the same 1989 breakfast meeting at which the redesign was unveiled. “If you don’t have the retail mix that gives the lady what she wants, it won’t work.”

Streetscape design is a nebulous art that borrows equally from architecture and psychology, and no design feature makes this clearer than that most essential of amenities, the sidewalk.

In the 1860s, Potter Palmer bought up three-fourths of a mile of State Street frontage. Already it was a thoroughfare of some pretension, having been part of the old state road that ran to Vincennes, Indiana. Palmer sought to make it even grander. He surrendered 27 feet of his own frontage between Lake and Madison and bullied other landowners on the street into doing the same. The result was a four-block right-of-way that stretched 120 feet from one side of the street to the other, enough for 36-foot sidewalks on each side. From Madison south to Congress the overall right-of-way was a less majestic 100 feet; but even there, sidewalks of 26 feet were possible.

“Less is more,” Mies said. While the maxim is of dubious relevance in other kinds of building, it is true surprisingly often of the downtown sidewalk. William H. Whyte, in his seminal research into sidewalk design, concluded that 25 feet was plenty for sidewalks on a big city’s major avenues. Yet the 1979 mall design converted some road space to pedestrian right-of-way, making the sidewalks even wider in places than they had been. So now some of State Street’s pedestrian promenades–it seems inaccurate to call them mere sidewalks–are twice Whyte’s recommended width.

Describing his team’s proposals a year ago to the Friends of Downtown, Coffey said, “A lot of the hustle and bustle you get on a tighter sidewalk” had been dissipated by the malling. Up to a point, people actually seem to prefer crowding together on a sidewalk. Watch strollers on State during any busy noon hour. Even where the effective width of the walk is narrowed by food carts or outdoor tables, very few people will detour to the acres of vacant pavement streetside–they stick with the flow of walkers along the building faces, even if it means slowing down or dodging other pedestrians. The sidewalks on upper Michigan Avenue were narrowed many years ago by converting part of them into planting beds; as a result, rich people were put into closer proximity with the merchandise in window displays, and tourists were put into closer proximity with rich people.

It was not just the width of the mall’s sidewalks that doomed them. The new walks were built from octagonal asphalt paving blocks, preferred by cheapskate infrastructurists everywhere. Not proper granite paving blocks like they have in the suburbs, you understand; but pavers the color of pigeons and soot and old chewing gum and greasy nylon jackets worn by men who sleep in doorways–the color, in short, of everything that is icky about the city. Council members see them as thousands of gravestones marking their stillborn hopes for revival.

In the process of restoring the State Street sidewalks to something like their premall dimensions, the restreeting of State will also repave them. The design provides for a window-shopping zone of 1 1/2 to 5 feet, a 3-foot zone for bus loading, and walkways ranging from 10 to 12 1/2 feet. Explains Don Miles of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, “The existing sidewalks were more space than was needed–in fact, more space than was usable.” A street is a street, Miles says in effect, and a park is a park.

The traditional downtown street hasn’t died in America, of course. It’s just gone suburban, like everything else. The State Streets of yore have been successfully re-created in several versions since the 1950s: in the form of indoor shopping malls, Disney-style amusement parks, and the “festival markets” pioneered by James Rouse in cities from Boston and Baltimore to San Francisco. Such ersatz urban environments are hugely popular, which naturally vexes fans of real city streets no end. “They’re only places to shop and eat,” said then-Chicago planning director Elizabeth Hollander at a 1989 symposium, “Re-creating the Street,” put on by the Chicago Historical Society. “Cities are more than that.”

Neil Harris, the University of Chicago historian, has pointed out how downtown revitalization plans in the 1970s and ’80s relied on shopping for “theater and ritual as well as economic support.” Savvier merchants like Crate & Barrel gratify this appetite for drama and incident by exposing the inside of their stores to the street. Officials of the Nike Town store planned for North Michigan next year promise to give Chicago a bit of “retail theater” that will be “not just another boring place to shop.”

The State Street redesign provides only modestly, mainly in the form of brighter colors, banners, and so on, for the “carnival atmosphere” up-to-date marketing texts insist is a sine qua non for retail success. The real fun is to be provided by private developers. The massive Block 37 redevelopment between Randolph and Washington across from Field’s was to have given State Street its very own Water Tower Place: a 350,000-square-foot retail atrium decked out in a Roman circus motif. Project manager Michael Tobin promised a gaudy “festival atmosphere” to attract tourists; there would even be topiary in the concourse, which Tobin said would be “a little more fun than the ordinary ficuses that line a winter garden.”

But retailers ought to know better than the rest of us that nothing becomes outdated faster than fashion. In The Chicago School of Architecture, the venerable Carl Condit lays the blame for the 1961 destruction of the even more venerable Republic Building on the State Street merchants who “vigorously encouraged the idea of new up-to-the-minute construction” as part of their campaign to “make the great shopping artery as modern and fashionable as the current taste dictates.”

Indeed, by the end of the 1980s a lot of the fun seemed to have gone out of shopping anyway. For many people, reductions in real income, the pressures of two jobs, aging, and preoccupations with home and kids all meant shopping for pleasure made no sense. Survey after survey in fact suggests that by now people have come to regard shopping as on a par with going to the dentist. (Hence the increase in mail-order business.) If people are to come back to State in numbers, there must be more for them to do than shop.

“The street used to have everything on it,” enthused Dan Coffey to the Friends of Downtown in 1990. “Stores, restaurants, movie houses, the whole bit.” In its heyday State Street catered to the whole Chicagoan, offering satisfaction to virtually all his needs, save perhaps the spiritual. For a time it even boasted a branch public library. And it was home to a number of prestigious office towers (whose true identities were sometimes obscured by the retail space offered on the lowest floors).

Decades of promoting State Street as a shopping district have concealed its more complex role. Scientists of cities have deduced certain laws from the success of places like the old State Street. Jane Jacobs, for instance, concluded that for a city street to thrive it must be a crossroads in a functional as well as a physical sense. Whether it’s a neighborhood drag or a metropolitan thoroughfare, every socially and economically vital street offers what Jacobs calls “a pool of intricate cross-use,” from which different kinds of people draw different things at different times of day.

Still, the astounding retail successes of the old State Street unhappily have convinced people that State is not only a street of stores but a street for stores. In urban-design terms, the distinction is crucial. Often as a street becomes more successful it tends to dediversify. A street that successfully and exclusively offers places to shop eventually will attract only people who wish to shop. State Street’s demise as a successful shopping district was all but insured, in short, when it became a successful shopping district. The traffic jams on sale days and during the Christmas season, for instance, eventually made access inconvenient for professional and business tenants and their customers and clients. Land values and rents were driven up by the profit potential in mass retailing, and high rents eventually put a State Street address out of reach of the small businessman. At the same time, image-conscious corporations looking for larger office operations wanted no part of the street’s two-for-one-sale ambience.

Unfortunately the council’s new blueprint describes the street in terms of single-use zones that risk doing intentionally what the market once accomplished unwittingly. The three distinct zones are (1) a shriveled three-block core retail area that will encompass Field’s and Carson’s and eventually the Block 37 atrium mall; (2) a “theater zone” anchored by the restored Chicago Theatre and connected eventually to the Selwyn and Harris theaters a block to the west on Dearborn; and (3) a “cultural zone” at the southern end of State just north of Congress, which is home to the new Harold Washington Library and DePaul University’s new Loop quarters as well as the nearby campuses of Columbia and Roosevelt colleges.

These zones appeal to a marketer’s sense of order, not a planner’s good sense. The “cultural zone” should be a lively place when the library is open, but may prove ominously deserted after closing time–unless there is also a revival of apartments, restaurants, and clubs in the area. Similarly, to the extent a theater zone is successfully marketed and developed as such, it will attract only people who wish to go to the theater. Happily, however, planning has no more effect on the evolution of cities than a dairyman’s appetite for cottage cheese has on the evolution of cows. Already there are more active theaters in or near the South State cultural zone than there are in the proposed theater zone at the other end of the street.

Once again, providing “a pool of intricate cross-use” is what makes a city street viable. And “mixed use” projects being built around the United States increasingly include residences as well as the usual retail/office/entertainment facilities. A massive public-private redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital, slated for completion in the mid-1990s, will add a reported 1,450 new dwellings on or near that street; the revival of the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis has been explained in part by a recent big jump in the numbers of Minneapolitans who live downtown.

Is it possible that the best vehicle for getting people back onto State Street is the moving van? High land costs are perhaps the biggest barrier to new construction in an overbuilt apartment market (another example of how a street’s success can preclude other compatible uses). Coffey for one thinks that hotels are a better way to put people on State after dark. So far the only residential project talked about is student housing across the street from DePaul University’s new Loop center in the old Goldblatt’s building. Still, the underused upper-story space lining State Street does offer residential possibilities: loft conversions, studios, student housing. “The council is supportive of residential uses on State Street,” says Ernest Brown. “There have been some proposals, but it just hasn’t happened yet.”

To a lot of Chicagoans, of course, State Street is much more than a place of business–it’s a civic treasure. The Tribune, for instance, speaks touchingly of “restoring State Street to its former eminence.” Why does State Street matter? Years ago, it could have been argued that sales lost to State Street were lost to the city, channeled instead to suburban downtowns and malls. Today, when State Street is functioning more as a neighborhood than a regional retail center, sales lost to State are likely being made elsewhere downtown. In any event, retailing cannot by itself keep a downtown healthy–retailing needs a healthy downtown, not the other way around.

The amount and source of any public funds for the redesign are not clear. Some of the infrastructure improvements would have to be made anyway, as part of other ongoing maintenance work. But the question remains whether any public money ought to be spent to enhance the private profit potential of the street’s merchants and landlords. Over the years the city has done everything to help State Street merchants but stand behind the cash register and make change.

Like the public schools, State Street would seem to be one of those civic enterprises whose public subsidy is no longer a matter of utility but of tradition. Mayor Daley publicly endorsed the redesign plan in May, and it also enjoys the personal backing of his new chief of staff, former planning commissioner David Mosena. (When Crain’s Chicago Business asked five movers and shakers this spring what ought to happen in the Loop in the next 25 years, only Mosena mentioned State Street, saying “The new State Street is where much of our attention should be placed.”) There has been speculation that the younger Daley feels some obligation to make good on a project dear to his old man’s heart; in any event, he seems to yearn for the Chicago of the song as much as anyone.

The mood at the council’s third annual fund-raising ball in April was elegiac; one of the guests recalled for a Tribune interviewer that “the supreme treat if I did my homework was to go shopping on State Street.” Most of the pleas for a revived State Street are cast in just such personal terms, usually by natives with fond memories of the old State. As Gerald Suttles writes in Man-Made City, “Just to see [State Street] was to recall Potter Palmer, George Jessel, Big Bill Thompson, St. Patrick’s Day, Richard J. Daley, Louis Sullivan, Santa Claus and Frank Sinatra.” Apart from Daley–whom even sophisticated Chicagoans over the age of 30 sometimes confuse with Santa Claus–almost none of Suttles’s ghosts would be recognized by most Chicagoans, much less recalled in the context of the new street.

In the words of that noted urbanologist Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go downtown again.

It wasn’t poor design that doomed the 1979 mall but poor sociology. The malling of State Street was done on a hunch, not because anyone had a very good reason to think it would work but because it was the only thing they could think of that might work.

Guessing right about tomorrow requires one to think slightly ahead of the trends today. In the 1930s the genteel downtown department stores lagged behind aggressive new mass marketers like Sears that were expanding into suburban downtowns and neighborhood retail strips; the downtown stores dawdled while developers in the 1950s and early ’60s filled the first regional malls; and in the 1970s merchants’ associations on State Street and Michigan Avenue resisted the trend, already successful in Manhattan and elsewhere, toward sidewalk amenities–the “street as happening.”

In short, for decades most downtown Chicago merchants have been ten years or so behind each retailing trend. If the Greater State Street Council says that cars and topiary are the latest in downtown retailing, we can be reasonably certain that cars and topiary are the next-to-latest thing.

Consider the potential for State Street of the trolley system proposed for downtown. Planners have a rule of thumb that people will not eagerly attempt noon-hour walking trips longer than three or four blocks. The constraint is time as much as fitness. A three-block jaunt takes about 9 minutes, or 18 to 20 minutes for the round trip. By the time a typical Loop wage slave with a 60-minute lunch break moves to and from his desk and the sidewalk, he is left with barely half an hour to browse or enjoy a decent meal. Says Mary Decker, former executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Council, “The ability of the typical Loop worker to spend their lunch hours on State Street has really deteriorated. That kind of shopping–a major clothing purchase, gifts–doesn’t happen as often as it used to, to the detriment of the city’s tax coffers.”

The council’s redesign plan does not specifically address cross-Loop transit. It assumes that the problem will be solved by the proposed central area circulator system, the state-of-the-art streetcar system scheduled to roll in the late 1990s. The leg of the system that will probably run between Columbus Drive on the east and Canal/Clinton streets west of the river will cross State at Monroe. According to the estimates of the MPC, a lunch-hour trip aboard the circulator to State from the west-Loop office towers could take as little as seven to eight minutes, even assuming the maximum wait between cars.

State Street is a wide street with a subway underneath it and lots of cross-city buses on top of it, and so would seem an ideal place for a circulator leg. And you’d think that the prospect of carsful of jolly conventioneers–or more likely their bored wives–piling onto State from McCormick Place would have the State Street merchants out there with picks and shovels themselves, eager to lay the first rail. When the merchants began their redesign, however, the circulator was just a rumor; later, a preliminary feasibility study by the MPC suggested that the cramped intersection at Randolph meant that streetcars could run on State but they couldn’t turn off it there. The redesign proceeded on the assumption that any circulator would be routed elsewhere.

Last year, however, City Hall planners listed State Street south of Monroe as an alternative for the south lakefront leg of the circulator. (The others are Michigan Avenue and the Illinois Central “cut” through Grant Park.) But Barton-Aschman, the traffic consultants, rejected State in their report to the city. “It would not be possible to efficiently operate autos, buses, and [light rail systems] on State during the day,” concluded these experts. They added, however, that the South State Street option “may be reconsidered” pending the outcome of the street’s redesign proposals.

Translated, this means: “If they don’t put cars back on State.” They can run cars and buses on the new State, or streetcars and buses, but they can’t run all three. Running the circulator’s south lakefront leg on State would mean automobiles would have to be banned during the day south of Monroe, though they’d be permitted north of it. Sara Bode, the council’s executive director, says carefully that such a bifurcation of the street would “cause concern” among the council pashas, who, she adds, are “quite thoroughly committed to bringing back cars.”

Is it possible that the merchants have again missed the boat–or rather the streetcar? That by insisting on bringing the automobile back to State they have rendered it inaccessible to the circulator? That by embracing the transit technology of the 1960s they have squandered a chance to host the transit technology of the 2000s? Is it possible the circulator would have provided precisely the cachet that eluded the State Street merchants in 1979?

Designs are means to an end. The new State Street design is an improvement in means over the 1979 mall, but like its predecessor it’s dedicated to a dubious end. In other words, this plan doesn’t repeat all the mistakes of the 1979 mall–only the most important ones.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.