The Marketing of Downtown Chicago

Last month, we noted two important announcements for the health and vitality of downtown Chicago: The new CityTarget coming to the Sullivan Center (35 South State Street), and Wal-Mart’s new Urban Market to be installed at Presidential Towers (555 West Madison Street).

Presidential Towers, future home of the Chicago's first Wal-Mart Urban Market.

As much as we hate giving credit to politicians for jobs well done, the outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley really deserves a laurel, and hardy handshake for these two developments.

A great portion of urban real estate development suffers from the chicken-and-egg problem.  Stores won’t locate where there aren’t people.  And people, especially in an auto-hostile environment like The Loop, won’t live where there are retail scarcities.  Daley knew which end of the egg to crack.

It was Hizzonor who, over the last decade or so, used the methods at his disposal to encourage developers to open large-scale residential properties in the Loop, the Near North Side, West Town, Streeterville, the South Loop, and adjacent areas.  Sometimes with public-private partnerships, sometimes via institutional ties, and likely through some ancillatry methods we’ll never know about.  Daley convinced developers to turn unlikely corners of Chicago into thriving communities.

Who, as recently as 2000, could have imagined that a brownfield golf course that used to be a railyard and lakefront shipping terminal would be splashed across the New York Times, and magazines around the world for its architectural innovation? (Lakeshore East, we’re talking about you!)

And that mess down by the Museum Campus that is now a cluster of respectful residential towers and rows of tranquil town homes is on the verge of actually becoming a permanent, cohesive neighborhood populated by hard-working people who actually care about where they live.  Something that took other corners of the city a century to achieve.

But enough gushing about the Mayor, whom we have voted both for and against over the years.  The real story here is the invasion of the big box stores in little box formats.

With the influx of tens of thousands of former commuters, empty-nesters, wannabe hipsters, students, and regular white-collar middle management folks into downtown Chicago, retailers have no choice but to take the market seriously.

According to an article in Women’s Wear Daily, it was a simple formula for Target: Look for clusters of 100,000 people who are underserved by the brand.  The same metric is putting new Target stores in downtown Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (though I’d say only Seattle and Los Angeles really need it).

The fact that Wal-Mart decided to plonk down one of its mini stores on the very same street (Madison) as Target, shows this isn’t a one-off, it’s the rising tide of a new trend.

This portion of Chicago's Loop saw its residential population increase 337% in the latest census.

That trend will only be strengthened by the 2010 Census figures.

When the latest census numbers came out, the Tribune was full of doomsday headlines lamenting the death of Chicago’s neighborhoods.  Yes, 200,000 people moved out of Chicago’s outer neighborhoods.  But something that seems to have escaped the mostly suburban-dwelling staffers at the Tribune* is that The Loop is a neighborhood, too.  So is Streeterville, and River North, and lots of other places in Chicago’s core that saw dramatic increases in population.

So, yes, it’s sad that some tracts in the Lakeview area, and Lincoln Square, and similar ‘hoods saw population decreases of 15% or more.  But portions of the Loop are up over 300%.  And those are the numbers that national retailers are looking for.

Chick-Fil-A is already ahead of the curve, and chances are that other brand scouts are already scouring the area for new opportunities.  Perhaps, God willing, we’ll finally get a Papa John’s. I once spent 30 minutes on the phone with a Papa John’s PR lady explaining that having an outlet in Des Plaines is not the same thing as being in Chicago.

So now the egg is rolling.  Daley brought the people in, the retailers are following, and soon more people will come.  The next thing you know, we’re looking at a huge, vibrant community in the heart of the city.

Why is this important?  It’s the big lesson that the elder Mayor Daley taught his son, and urban planners around the world:  When the heart of your city stops beating, your city dies.  Richard J. Daley is the reason there is a cliff of residential buildings on North Lake Shore Drive.  He’s the reason the region’s freeways flow into the city, and not around it, as they do elsewhere in America.

Downtown Houston: Not bad, but not Chicago.

Case in point: Houston and Chicago were founded at the same time.  Today, one looks like a miniature New York.  The other looks like Milwaukee.  The big reason for this is the often ruthless urban city-scaping of its leaders.  While Houston lets the free market decide what to do (Houston has no zoning laws, and sports four ring roads), Chicago’s future is decided by the warrior kings who sit in the big squishy chair in City Hall.

The work the Daleys have done will continue to shape Chicago for years to come, even as Rahm Emmanuel tries to put his stamp on the metropolis.  Will he be as effective, or as ruthless?  Probably not.  But I’m willing to reserve judgement until his second term, and happy to be proven wrong.

* In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I was an employee of the Tribune Company from 2003 through 2007.

Author: Editor

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

Share This Post On