Signs of Need at Block37

Block37 sign proposal by Kiku Obata

If you’ve been down to Block37 recently (and chances are you haven’t, or the Beard Papa’s Japanese creampuff stand wouldn’t have closed), then you might have noticed that State Street’s vertical mall has changed its logo. Out are the numerals, replaced with an all-letter logo.

But that’s just the problem — Nobody notices Block37 (108 North State Street). It looks like an office building with a smattering of ground-floor retail. It doesn’t look like a half-empty mall with space for a giant food court, restaurants, and a movie theater. Pedestrians think what they see on the outside is the extent of what there is to be seen on the inside.

The lack of foot traffic is killing some stores. One that closed earlier this year publicly lamented that its busiest times were during rush hours, when commuters were shuttling between the CTA Blue and Red lines. And those commuters were far too late for work or eager to get home to stop and shop.

So, tired of being overlooked, Block37 wants to put up some signs. Big signs. Not giant flashing video signs like Water Tower Place (845 North Michigan Avenue) wants. They would be vertical standards jutting out from the building like fins. There are hundreds of stores around town with similar signs done in canvass. These would be more substantial, and judging from the renderings done by Saint Louis-based Kiku Obata, quite possibly illuminated.

Here’s a before-and-after drawing from Kiku Obata:

Block37 sign proposal by Kiku Obata

State Street is one of those portions of downtown where signs are a prickly thing. State Street is in what is called a Special Sign District. So,broadly speaking, if you want to put a big sign on your store, the answer is “no.” The workaround is that the stores end up putting their great big signs inside the stores, behind the windows. Witness the CityTarget just a couple of blocks away.

But that’s just not getting the job done at ol’37. The mall feels the need to reach out an extra few feet to plead with potential customers, “Notice me! Shop me! Love me!”

How that will fly with neighborhood groups remains to be seen. A big part of the reason Block37 looks the way it does is because the locals didn’t want a big ugly mall on their doorstep. But that was a different age, when people were still shopping at Chicago Place, Apple hadn’t yet taught the world that retail can be beautiful, and the theories preached by the University of Chicago hadn’t yet crashed the economy. Today it’s a different world and the plight of a half-empty mall might find a sympathetic ear.

42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly has scheduled a public meeting to talk about the Block37 signs (6:00pm, December 10, 2012 at Block37). He regularly requires developers to give a little to get a little. Our suggestion to the alderman is that in exchange for the zoning change that Block37 needs to get its signs, it fixes WBBM-TV’s broken promise on the other side of the building.


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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  1. Guh. I’m not sure those long signs are going to make any difference. Now it’ll look like a parking garage with long banners on it.


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  2. i do think block thirty 37 has potential, there are enough people passing in proximity (state st, cta transfer) to support the mall. it is definitely the mall’s fault for failing to engage the audience. i support some sort of attractive visuals on the outside and would suggest the mall includes some free activities, events, promos, etc to advertise its existence, i bet many people don’t even know there is a mall there, but then again half of it is empty. cool chic shopping on state street @ block 37 is quite possible and a strong advertising/marketing campaign with some addition content can turn the lunker around!

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    • Editor

      I’m intrigued by your statement that the mall has failed to engage the audience. Can you elaborate on this?

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  3. If the CTA and the mall developer could agree on reinstating the free transfer between the Red and Blue lines at Washington — or, even easier, just reprogram the turnstiles at Red-Lake and Blue-Washington and reinstate it that way — maybe they’d have a fighting chance of saving the mall. But as things currently stand it’s a paid transfer and not even signposted on the CTA rail map. Which is absurd. Other cities do this with integrating shopping and transit. Why not us? At the rate we’re going, we’ll have a dead mall and no transit connection where we used to have pedway AND subway connections and an open space where craft and art shows at least had somewhere to go.

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  4. Editor

    That’s an excellent point. The CTA already programmed the turnstiles to allow a free transfer between the Red Line and the Brown/Purple/Orange/Green/Pink lines at State Street, so why not the Blue Line, too?

    That explains why the Jackson stations are always so crammed. I bet a lot of those people would transfer at Washington again if they could do it for free.

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