The Malling of Michigan Avenue

For the last few years I’ve heard occasional complaints about the “mallification” of Michigan Avenue.

Glamorized in their own minds as the “Boul Mich” by people not old enough to have experienced its more genteel incarnation, Michigan Avenue was once lined with low-rise residential blocks and boutiques.  That started to change in the 1960’s as property values rose and construction technology advanced.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue).  Replacing a surface parking lot next to a hotel with a 100-story black steel monolith was more than a visual jolt.  It was a watershed moment in the development of North Michigan Avenue, and the first step toward turning the bustling, but still comparatively quiet, leafy district into another of Chicago’s canyons of commerce.

The John Hancock Center, however, did play nice at first. The ground floor retail was a Cartier store.  There was a public ice skating rink out front.  And genteel life continued at the pedestrian level.

But as more and more skyscrapers lined the street, more and more boutiques fled.  First for Oak Street, then for Damen Avenue, and more recently back to the Oak/Walton/Rush Street areas.  Back on the boulevard, the boutiques have been replaced by such suburban shopping mall staples as The Gap, Eddie Bauer, and a Levis store.  More mall rats are coming as Victoria’s Secret opens its new store today (734 North Michigan Avenue), Zara opens next Friday (600 North Michigan Avenue), and Swarovski is coming soon (540 North Michigan Avenue).

But the second straw that broke Michigan Avenue’s back was once again at the John Hancock Center — Best Buy.  The symbol of all that is suburban and mass market moved in several months ago.  In the eyes of many people, it might as well have been a Wal-Mart. Some neighbors half-jokingly, half-worringly wondered if Best Buy would add strip mall-style surface parking to Big John’s plaza.  With the arrival of Best Buy, Michigan Avenue could never be the same.

And thus it is that the malling of Michigan Avenue is now attracting wider attention.  Women’s Wear Daily, the bible of all things retail and fashion published daily, dedicated an entire page of its October 20, 2009 issue to an article titled “Michigan Avenue Gets Mall Flavor.”

Accompanied by photos of Best Buy and Filene’s Basement, the article details how the big names in fashion prefer the exclusivity and cheaper rents of Oak Street to Michigan Avenue’s masses of badly dressed I-state tourists.  The article also had some interesting statistics:

  • Michigan Avenue has the most foot traffic of any shopping street between New York and Las Vegas.
  • At 35,000 square feet, the new Zara will be the nation’s largest.
A WWD article earlier this month illustrated how Michigan Avenue retail rents are also the third-highest in the nation, after Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and Fifth Avenue in New York (if my memory is correct, I no longer have the issue).  The current article notes that even in these hard economic times, retail space on Michigan Avenue is still around $400 per square foot, down from $500 a year ago.  By comparison, Fifth Avenue fetches $1,500 a square foot, down from $2,500.
So, what’s the future of the Magnificent Mile?  That may have been best summarized by a quote in the article from Lorraine Adney, a VP at McDevitt and Co. who said, “It’s just younger, faster, and less expensive.”

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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