We thought we’d switch it up a bit with the mall postings and fire off a whole bunch of them at once, in an urban setting: downtown Chicago.
The following six malls are the largest and most cohesive retail centers in downtown Chicago, which we’re defining as extending beyond the Loop and including the neighborhoods of River North and Streeterville because, well, they’re downtown for all practical purposes.
There are other enclosed retail sMalls – clusters of enclosed shops - in downtown Chicago, and they’re too numerous to note, such as the shops inside and along the Chicago Pedway, an underground system of walkways connecting many downtown buildings, and sMalls also exist in the atriums of downtown office buildings. We typically set a threshhold of at least 100,000 square-feet for these to “count” – occasionally something pops out that is smaller than this – and it’s not a set-in-stone rule (I know at least somebody is going to comment or e-mail me and say something like, “You didn’t include Xxxx, it’s a mall!). So, with that in mind we’ll proceed into the depths of the urban jungle.
Block 37 – State Street is Chicago’s historic downtown shopping street. However, just as Frank Sinatra ingrained ‘State Street, that great street’ into America’s pop psyche, Michigan Avenue replaced State Street as Chicago’s most important shopping street. State Street became a secondary – yet still viable – destination. Nestled in the heart of downtown, and housing the flagship stores of both Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field’s, State Street retained its old-fashioned image of utility, while Michigan Avenue stole all the glitz and glamour.
Atrium Mall – This is the smallest mall we’re choosing to include, and the only one technically in the Loop - at least for now. The Atrium Mall consists of the first three levels of the James R. Thompson Center, a government building housing the offices of the State of Illinois. It was built in 1985, and the 17-story building looks more like a Postmodernist museum rather than an office building housing government facilities. The building was named for former governor Jim Thompson in 1993, after being called State of Illinois Center until then. No clue why that creative name would ever get scrapped.
The enclosed space inside the James Thompson Center is really an impressive sight to behold. An atrium exposes all 17 stories up to the top of the all-glass center, and it is said to be one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. The building takes up an entire city block, at 100 W. Randolph, and the basement connects to the lesser-known Chicago Pedway, an underground system of walkways connecting many downtown buildings, and the CTA Subway/El system.
The Atrium Mall consists of 40 stores, restaurants, and services, catering mostly to the downtown working crowd, with about 140,000 square-feet of leasable space. There are no retail anchors to speak of, and the entire thing is closed after 6 on weekdays and all weekend, too, so the connection to the office crowd is the only reason this thing exists. The food choices are the largest component, and feature nothing too exciting, unless you consider the fact that there are two Dunkin Donuts exciting. And we admit, we kind of do.
We also find it amusing that the tiny Atrium Mall has its own Myspace page – erm, excuse me, her own Myspace page. She notes on it that she doesn’t watch too much TV, and doesn’t care for politics, but she does read one of our favorite authors - Paco Underhill. And why should she not? She’s a mall, after all…
Shops at the Mart – The Merchandise Mart, constructed by Marshall Field and Company in 1930, occupies two entire city blocks in the River North neighborhood of downtown Chicago, bounded by Wells Street on the east, Kinzie on the north, Orleans and Franklin on the west, and the Chicago River on the south. With 4.2 million square feet of retail space on 25 stories, the Merchandise Mart is one of the largest commercial buildings in the world, and one of the most fascinating buildings in Chicago’s impressive store of architecture.
Oh, and the first two levels are a mall.
The Merchandise Mart building itself is an homage to trading partners of Chicago’s past, present, and the site’s history as a Native American trading post - 56 terra cotta Indian chiefs circled the tower’s crown; however, they were barely visible from street level and intended to be viewed from nearby skyscrapers in River North, most of which were never constructed. Thus, the Indian chiefs were removed in 1961 as part of a larger renovation project at the Mart. Other architectural features included department store windows sans department store - the Mart was, after all, a vision of department store magnate Marshall Field – and an elaborate interior featuring eight marble piers, storefronts embossed in bronze trim, and green and orange terazzo floors.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the artwork inside the Mart essentially serves as a museum of retail. Famed Chicago artist Jules Guerin’s frieze of murals are the focal feature of the Mart’s lobby, and depict commerce throughout the world, focusing on the countries of origin for items sold in the building. In addition, along the Chicago River facing the Mart are eight bronze busts of retail magnates such as John Wanamaker, Marshall Field, Edward Filene, and Aaron Montgomery Ward.
But what businesses actually operate at the Mart?
Over the past 80 years the Mart has been home to radio stations, television station WMAQ, corporate offices, an el platform, and even a post office. Most of the space at the Mart, however, has been historically devoted to wholesale showrooms – mainly for interior design. Today, entire usable rooms are set up as showrooms, mostly for wholesalers and not open to the general public. In addition, the Mart is home to the world’s largest design expo and trade show, and also hosts Art Chicago’s international art fair. Also, the corporate offices of the Chicago Sun-Times relocated here in 2004when their old building was torn down for Trump Tower, and the corporate offices of Potbelly Sandwich Works - a fast-casual national chain – are located here as well.
In addition to the above tenants, the Mart became home to a two-level shopping mall in 1991. Called Shops at the Mart, the shopping mall gave the Mart a wider visibility to the public, featuring a variety of shops and services. It was to be anchored by Chicago-based department store Carson Pirie Scott (did this ever open? If so, how long was it open?), and had a lot of apparel shops and traditional mall stores when it first debuted. The Limited opened a 23,000 square-foot space and divided it among its subsidiaries. Over the years, however, most of the traditional chain fodder found in suburban malls found its way out, and the mall began to focus on the downtown office crowd. The eclectic mix of stores today also suggests this. Most of the apparel stores, including The Limited, no longer operate at The Mart.
The mall exists on the first two levels of the behemoth 25-story Mart, and although the mall doesn’t feature anything you’d go out of your way for as a visitor, the various food stalls, the food court, and the services here serve the downtown office crowd well.
The Shops at North Bridge – Opened in 2000, this is not only the newest mall in downtown Chicago, but also the newest enclosed mall in the entire Chicagoland area. Located in the 500 block of North Michigan Avenue, The Shops at North Bridge is anchored by the midwest Nordstrom flagship – which is actually a block west, past Rush Street - and features a five-level enclosed concourse of upscale shops, connecting Nordstrom to Michigan Avenue at street level.
The site where North Bridge currently stands was, for over 70 years, the McGraw Hill Building - an art deco style construction, which opened in 1928. In 1997, the City of Chicago got wind of the impending redevelopment of this historic, iconic building, and quicky declared it a designated historical landmark so they couldn’t totally decimate it. So, when redevelopment time came, the developers had no choice but to incorporate large portions of the building into their new design. After the McGraw Hill Building’s insides were torn down, its front facade facing Michigan Avenue was saved and grafted onto the new retail mall.
The design and layout here are interesting, mostly out of the necessity of space restrictions in an urban downtown, but also due to Chicago’s history. Because of the great Chicago fire of 1871, much of downtown Chicago – including the “street level” of Michigan Avenue outside of the mall – was rebuilt one or more levels above the actual ground. However, some of the side streets to the west of the mall are actually located at actual ground level, a level beneath Michigan Avenue. These include Grand Avenue, which becomes an underpass under Michigan Avenue, and Rush Street where Nordstrom sits.
The mall itself is a four-level structure which curves between the Michigan Avenue entrance, which is actually on a bridge over Grand Avenue, and the entrance to Nordstrom, which is actually located on a bridge over Rush Street. The entrance on Michigan Avenue is, like Water Tower Place, an elaborate lobby. Guests must go up at least one level on an escalator to reach “Level 1″ of the mall, and they may ascend via escalator to the other levels from there as well. The lobby also contains huge artistic sculptures, and windows on all sides featuring breathtaking urban views. Confused yet? Just visualize a mall, on a bridge, because that’s pretty much what it is.
The Shops at North Bridge’s tenants are mostly mid-range to upscale, including Kenneth Cole, Armani Exchange, and Louis Vuitton, and there’s a food court on the 4th level featuring nonstandard food court fare. Don’t expect McDonald’s and Sbarro here; instead, the offerings are mostly local and cater to upscale fast-casual dining.
The mall is also part of the larger North Bridge complex, which spans several blocks, from Michigan all the way over to State Street, and from Ohio down to Illinois. Other businesses in the complex have street frontage and aren’t connected to the mall structure, and include restaurants like Weber Grill, PF Chang, and California Pizza Kitchen, as well as furniture store Room and Board, who presumably moved here from the failed Chicago Place mall up the street (see below). There are also a few hotels in the complex: Conrad Hilton, Homewood Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. Say that one without running out of breath.
North Bridge has changed ownership a couple times since opening in 2000. In 2003, Westfield America gained an interest from original developer John Buck, and rebranded the mall Westfield Shoppingtown North Bridge, dropping the “Shoppingtown” moniker in 2005. Then, in 2008, Macerich acquired the mall from Westfield, and Macerich put back the original name to The Shops at North Bridge. North Bridge is Macerich’s first property in the Chicago area.
North Bridge has been successful because of its sheer, stunning beauty, design, and the popularity of anchor Nordstrom. Putting Nordstrom at the back, a block away, and funneling shoppers from Michigan Avenue to it has proved to be a good idea.
Chicago Place – A few blocks north of The Shops at North Bridge along Michigan Avenue brings us to the next stop on our downtown Chicago mall tour, Chicago Place. In contrast with the nuanced success of North Bridge, Chicago Place is a mostly-failed dead mall, sitting right in the middle of downtown Chicago on its most famous shopping street. What gives?
Most of the center is currently closed, save for the food court and one store (as of 2009), and plans are underway to transform most of the mall into office space – save for the Mag Mile frontage along Michigan Avenue, which will remain retail.
Chicago Place opened in 1990 as a 600-foot, 49-story behemoth, located at 700 N. Michigan Avenue, between Huron and Superior Streets. The bottom 8 floors of the tower consisted, until 2009, of a vertical mall, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, which also opened as part of this development (it moved from across the street). The rest of the floors are condos.
Shortly after debuting in 1990, Chicago Place – while experiencing a modicum of success and lease rates around 70 percent during the 1990s – fell dramatically short of expectations. After all, it was on Michigan Avenue – one of the toniest shopping streets in the entire country. Some stores, mainly on upper floors, never filled or had trouble filling, and the whole center certainly never felt as cohesive as Water Tower Place, just a few blocks north.
Despite being located on one of the nation’s premier shopping avenues, Chicago Place met its end through competition and poor design. The awkwardly small, jagged floors of the vertical mall allowed for awkward placement of the handful of stores on each level, and the escalators, hemmed into the tightest space imaginable, gave people vertigo. Also, the zig zag design had the unanticipated – and certainly unwanted – effect of alienating shoppers from the storefronts, pushing them away and past them. In addition, anchor Saks is hemmed in at the back corner of the center, and casts a cold, unwelcoming pall upon it; it’s not an obvious focal point of the mall, drawing shoppers through the mall and into it like the 900 North Michigan or North Bridge malls do.
An express elevator near the rear of the mall, next to the Rush Street entrance, whisks people to and from the food court – the only truly inviting space in the mall – allowing them to pass the 7 stories between it and the ground level. Ostensibly, this was done to allow the food court to thrive on lunch patrons who didn’t have time to ascend each level or use the slower elevators in the middle of the mall’s atrium. It was a good idea, because the food court did indeed thrive, and is, rather oddly - as of late Summer 2009 – the only part of the mall still open for business. The food court is also, unlike the rest of the mall, a nice, refreshing open space full of huge windows with sweeping views of Michigan Avenue, downtown, and the lakefront to the north.
By the 2000s, Chicago Place’s days became clearly numbered. In 2004, a group of New York investors bought the mall for the price of $39 million – a steal. Or so they thought. Longtime tenants Ann Taylor and Room and Board had recently closed, as well as the tenants who brought life to the ground levels - Bockwinkel’s, an upscale grocer, a gourmet coffee place, and a flower shop.
It became painfully clear toward the middle of the 2000s that Chicago Place could simply not keep up. It had neither the cachet of tourist-popular Water Tower Place, the upscale luxury of 900 N. Michigan Shops, nor the nuanced open floorplan of North Bridge. In January of 2009, the Talbots store finally closed, leaving only a Tall Girl shop on the third floor, and the food court as the only remaining tenants. According to Tall Girl’s website, the store is still open as of September 19, 2009 – is this true? Probably not for long.
Long term plans are for the upper floors of Chicago Place to be gutted, but we’re not sure if this includes the food court or not. The food court, while still technically open, is now having vacancy issues of its own – McDonald’s couldn’t even survive here – and the hike up to he 8th floor is probably a bit of a time-waster for people in a lunch crunch. The street-level facade will be converted into a Zara store, and Saks will remain as well. A Best Buy was to come in as well, but that apparently fell through as Best Buy recently opened up in the John Hancock Center four blocks north.
So long, Chicago Place. You were a neat idea, if poorly executed.
Water Tower Place – Three blocks north of Chicago Place, and across the street, lies Water Tower Place – a Chicago shopping institution since 1975. The 8-level, 750,000 square-foot mall lies at the base of an 859-foot, 74-story skyscraper housing a Ritz Carlton Hotel, condominiums, and one of Chicago’s most famous residents – Oprah Winfrey; however, rumors are constantly afoot that she may be leaving – or maybe not. Keep us on our toes, O.
Brushes with fame aside, Water Tower Place single-handedly changed retail patterns in Chicago after it opened in the 1970s, bringing accessibility as well as shifting Chicago’s retail center of gravity. Water Tower’s 100 stores weren’t – and still aren’t today – the exclusive, upscale boutiques seen on Michigan Avenue and nearby Oak Street. Instead, the stores at Water Tower Place are those found in successful, A-Tier suburban malls, such as Hollister, American Eagle, Chico’s, and Ann Taylor.
The major anchor at Water Tower is Macy’s, which was, until 2006, a Marshall Field’s (wistful shout out to MF) – and a Lord and Taylor anchored the other side of the mall until it closed in 2007. The L&T space is currently a huuuuge American Girl Place, in part, and the rest of it is being redeveloped for other retail uses. Also, in addition to stores, there’s a Drury Lane Theater for live performances, and although there is no traditional food court, there are fast food and sit down dining establishments scattered throughout the levels, including California Pizza Kitchen, Wow Bao, and Foodlife – a food court-esque area on the mezzanine (first level above the lobby).
The design specs and layout of Water Tower Place also make it a unique place, unlike the awkwardly positioned space at failed Chicago Place, another vertical mall a few blocks south. From the Michigan Avenue main entrance lobby, guests are presented with escalators ascending upward featuring multiple tiers and a waterfall running beside them. The lobby itself only features entrances to American Girl, Macy’s, and Wow Bao – a counter service pa-Asian restaurant. Upon reaching the mezzanine level, guests are greeted with the Foodlife food court area, featuring multiple genres of cuisine in counter-service format, and a small market featuring fresh produce and other items. From the mezzanine level, the 8-level mall begins, and one can choose to ascend floor-by-floor using the escalators along one side of the atrium, or the elevators in the middle. The entire place is decked out in marble and shiny metal, and combined with the small space on each level, gives shoppers a frenetic urban vibe – that’s why they came to shop in downtown Chicago, I guess.
This accessible mix of stores brought other popular chains to Michigan Avenue, and helped Michigan Avenue replace State Street as Chicago’s all-purpose one-stop retail destination. The upscale shops and boutiques still exist, and even have their own niche over on Oak Street and in the 900 N. Michigan mall, but they have become the exception rather than the rule, and Water Tower Place was the impetus for this change.
By the way, the name Water Tower Place comes from the famous water tower located across the street, one of the only structures in Chicago to survive the great fire of 1871.
900 North Michigan Shops – In 1988, Urban Retail Properties, a Chicago-based developer, saw Water Tower Place’s immense success transforming the retail geography of Chicago and wanted a piece of the pie. They apparently recogized they couldn’t compete head-to-head with Water Tower, but they realized that Water Tower squeezed out the previous monopoly upscale retailers had prior to its existence, so they developed a plan. After signing Bloomingdale’s and junior anchor Henri Bendel (now clothing-box Mark Shale), they embarked on a massive, mixed-use development plan, featuring 7 levels of upscale retail in a vertical mall – much like Water Tower Place – along with condos and a Four Seasons Hotel.
Much like neighboring vertical malls Chicago Place and Water Tower Place, the building the mall is in is also a megatall skyscraper. At 871 feet tall, 900 North Michigan has 66 stories and is – as of September 11, 2001 - the tallest building in the U.S. housing a shopping mall.
The design and layout of 900 North Michigan Shops is similar to that of its sister, Water Tower Place. The 450,000 square-foot vertical mall is about half the size of Water Tower Place, and is accented with a mostly white facade on the inside. The angles aren’t intrusive either, unlike Chicago Place, with its failed zig zag design. 900 North Michigan encourages shoppers to actually shop in the stores. Anchor Bloomingdales is at the back (Rush Street side) of the center, and the anchor is a visible focal point upon entering from the Michigan Avenue main entrance. In addition, the arrangement of the escalators in a parallel pattern funnels shoppers past the shops, and not into a confusing spiral of vertigo.
As noted above, the clientele 900 Norh Michigan wants is more indicative of Michigan Avenue’s historical place in Chicago’s retail history as an upscale shopping destination, rather than the current mish-mash of all different types of retailers represented in Water Tower Place and the environs. Also, 900 North Michigan is also closer to the upscale boutique district along Oak and Walton Streets. By capturing an upmarket niche and through an inviting design, they have been successful where Chicago Place failed. Only about half of the mall’s roster of stores are national, recognizable chains, like Gucci; the other half are smaller-scale exclusive upmarket boutiques.
We walked around downtown Chicago and visited all of these landmarks during an afternoon in Fall 2007. As usual, feel free to leave comments.