Chicago’s New “Gateway” Both a Massive Success and Much Ado About Nothing

 The Gateway

What does it take to get Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to show up at an event, dozens of press releases, articles in the city’s newspapers, and notices in pretty much every neighborhood publication on the internet?  A bunch of picnic tables.

That’s pretty much what The Gateway is — an event heralded by the Chicago Loop Alliance, CDOT, and the Mayor’s Office as if it was some spectacular accomplishment in placemaking like Millennium Park.  In reality, what the city has done is take the mostly underutilized median of North State Street between Lake Street and Wacker Drive and put in some street furniture.  CDOT calls it an “Activated street median.”

The tally is four red four-seater metal tables with metal umbrellas, like the ones in Millennium Park and Daley Plaza, plus eight tiny blue movable tables and a smattering of spindly blue chairs.  Oh, and there’s a few planters, too.

Great cities around the world encourage tourists and residents alike to sit down and take a load off, enjoy the views and vibrancy of the urban environment, and maybe even eat a hot dog.  In Chicago, public benches are very scarce, even in green places.  The Chicago Park District is mostly unfamiliar with the phrase “park bench.”

Perhaps there was some event in the distant past that made the city afraid of public seating.  Maybe it’s because the old designs were commonly used by vagrants for sleeping.  But modern designs make benches unfriendly to sleepers, and who cares if they sleep on the benches, anyway?  They’re citizens of the city, too.  And removing benches doesn’t make them insomniacs, it just means they sleep in bus shelters, doorways, and in the middle of the sidewalk should the urge arise.

The worst part is that The Gateway is a phenomenal success, which just illustrates that there is a massive pent-up demand in Chicago for places to be.  We checked it out in three of its first four days of operation, and every place was taken by office workers and tourists chewing the fat, checking maps, tying shoes, and just enjoying being outside for a change. (The photographs accompanying this article show empty chairs because the snaps were taken just after the furniture arrived.)

It used to be that you could curl up with a book and a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  But now that they’re all being converted from comfy chairs to back-breaking stools in order to keep the customers moving, it would be nice to be able to sit on a bench on a sidewalk, in a park, or along the river and enjoy five minutes of mental downtime.

Cities from Seattle to New York are making this happen with a vengeance.  Chicago… Well, maybe the fragile-looking little blue chairs are a start.  CDOT promises to locate more microparks around the city to continue making up for the poor urban planning decisions of Chicago’s past.

For now, I’ll stick to the red chairs.  The blue ones don’t look like they could support the girth of the average Chicagoan.

For more information and a more positive outlook on this project, see the CDOT press release below.

The Gateway

City Celebrates Opening of “The Gateway” To The Loop
Activated Street Median is First “People Plaza” in Make Way for People Program

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) today participated in a grand opening celebration of “The Gateway,” a colorful placemaking activation of a street median in Chicago’s downtown Loop that invites visitors and residents to explore the vibrant business and cultural district.

“The Gateway is the first ‘People Plaza’ in our new efforts to activate public spaces with new programming and amenities,” said CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein. “By activating these public spaces like plazas, streets, parking spots and alleys, we are bringing new retail opportunities and invigorating our urban environment.”

People Plazas are part of CDOT’s Make Way for People initiative, which aims to create public spaces that cultivate community and culture in Chicago’s neighborhoods through placemaking.

“Make Way for People supports innovation in the public way by opening Chicago’s streets, parking spots, plazas and alleys to new programing and market opportunities via public and private partnerships,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “In addition to improving street safety and promoting walkable communities, this initiative supports economic development for local businesses and adds vibrancy to Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

The Program had four pilot locations last year and is expanding to 12 locations in 2013.

People Spots will be located at:

5228 and 5624 N. Clark St. in the Andersonville neighborhood
2959 N. Lincoln Ave. and 3551 N. Southport Ave. in Lakeview
643 and 1060 E. 47th St. in Bronzeville
People Plazas will be located at:

The Gateway, in the median on State Street between Lake Street and Wacker Drive
Perez Plaza, at 26th Street & Kolin Avenue in the Little Village neighborhood
And through a design competition led by Architecture for Humanity Chicago, three additional plazas will be activated this summer: 62nd Street and Drexel Avenue in Woodlawn; Jackson and Homan in East Garfield Park; and Wisconsin and Lincoln in Old Town.
The first People Street will be located at:

Laflin Street between Blue Island Avenue and 21st Street, and is also part of the Architecture for Humanity Chicago competition.
Klein also announced that CDOT was sponsoring bike rides to see the new People Spots on Saturday, June 15th, departing from Millennium Park at 9:30 a.m., and heading either to Bronzeville or Andersonville and Lakeview.

The Gateway is located on State Street between Lake Street and Wacker Drive and conceptualized by CLA’s Placemaking Committee, the new public space is filled with bright blue and red canopied tables and chairs, flowerboxes, trees and banners welcoming pedestrians to the Loop. The Chicago Loop Alliance will actively manage The Gateway with a cleaning team and support staff from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. each day through the end of September.

“Placemaking and place management have emerged as key priorities in Chicago Loop Alliance’s ongoing strategic planning process,” said CLA Executive Director Michael Edwards. “The Gateway is our first major experiment activating a public plaza in the Loop, and represents CLA’s ongoing commitment to enriching the urban experience for the Loop’s many audiences.”

The Gateway is supported through funding from the Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation, a 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to develop, support and promote the use of art, design and technology to activate public space in the Loop, benefitting businesses, individuals and stakeholders within in the service area of Chicago Loop Alliance.

“The Gateway contributes to balanced urban planning in our neighborhood, as well as preserving vital downtown green space,” said Alderman Brendan Reilly. “It will benefit residents and visitors throughout the 42nd Ward.”


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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