The short, sad life of State Street's pedestrian mall

October 14, 2011

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Saunter down the State Street corridor in Chicago's Loop, watch throngs of tourists, college students, businessmen, shoppers, and theater-goers, and it’s hard to imagine that section of the city was ever considered a planning disaster. But it was. At least it was during the 17 years that State Street existed as a pedestrian mall closed to private automobile traffic.

In 1979 downtown retail in Chicago was hurting, as it was in other cities. The late ‘70s were marred by a legacy of white flight, urban renewal and economic disinvestment that hollowed out so many city cores. Planners hoped that by sprucing up a nine block section of State Street and allowing only pedestrian and bus traffic to pass, that part of downtown would better compete with suburban malls, the Magnificent Mile, and popular end-of-the-rail-line shopping districts in Uptown and Woodlawn.  

But during the period State Street was redesigned and closed to cars, the corridor lost most of its signature department stores; Goldblatts, Montgomery Wards, Weiboldt’s, Bond’s and Baskin’s all shut their doors during that time.

By 1996, the city had axed the pedestrian mall, returned the thoroughfare to automobile traffic and redesigned the corridor with a master plan that called for a combination of retail, residential, educational and theatrical draws. Since then, it seems, State Street has thrived. The chain store ethos of Old Navy and H&M may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the street today makes money and routinely bustles with more pedestrians than it ever did in its pedestrian mall days.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions about the venture of pedestrian malls as a whole from this episode in Loop history. But Robert Bruegmann, who teaches architecture and urban planning at UIC, would tell you not to judge so hastily. From the vantage point of 2011, pedestrian malls seem to be less a rejected relic of ‘70s planning and more one of those things, like skinny ties and Ray-Ban sunglasses, that go in and out of fashion. The cycle seems to be about every 15 years. After all, New York turned a busy section of Broadway in Times Square into a pedestrian mall in May of 2010.

At a talk given at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in 2010, Bruegmann said that the reasons we think the State Street pedestrian mall failed aren’t necessarily the ones that get blamed for failure. In the audio above he tries to tease apart what did actually go wrong, and what cities like New York might learn from Chicago’s mistakes.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Robert Bruegmannspoke at an event presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation in January of 2010. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.