RAVENSWOOD — Most people pass a vacant storefront or lot and see a vacant storefront or lot.
Melanie Kahl sees possibilities. Awesome ones, at that.
"I'm one of those kinds of neighbors who walks down the street and asks, 'What if?'" said Kahl, who calls Damen Avenue home.
It's that mindset that spurred Kahl, a strategist for a design consultancy by day, to found the League of Awesome Possibilities just over a year ago, focused mainly on Lincoln Square, North Center and Ravenswood.
The "informal collective of neighbors and artists" aims to spark community discussion about what Kahl calls the "possibility of space" — what would make a street more vibrant, what would fill an everyday need, what would enhance surrounding businesses?
To get the conversational ball rolling, Kahl organized the League's first "possibility potluck" dinner in 2012, held in an empty storefront adjacent to the Damen Brown Line station. The brainstorming session — "the best of a dinner party-meets-design workshop" — drew 40 attendees and resulted in Jared Saunders and Whit Nelson leasing the storefront for their Brew Camp enterprise.
"It's proof-positive of what happens when you change the energy and conversation about a space," said Kahl.
Building on that initial success story, the League has now set it sights on Lawrence Avenue.
Looking past large-scale public and private projects already under way along the thoroughfare, including a streetscape and construction of a new Mariano's, Kahl's goal is to organize residents around smaller-scale development.
"The public comment process in Chicago is really broken," with residents too often simply reacting to plans for their neighborhoods rather than driving them, she said.
"We need to have conversations now, before rents go up and big box stores come in" on Lawrence, Kahl said. "We want to create a livable corridor with character that reflects what the neighborhood needs and wants."
Though there will be a brief presentation on the League and its mission, the evening is about creating an environment for neighbors to connect and share their own thoughts on what "awesome possibilities" means to them.
Said Kahl, "I'm just interested in setting the table."
To open up the process to individuals beyond those who attend the dinner, the League is also using the social media site Neighborland to gather input on the question: What do you want to see along the Lawrence Avenue corridor in Ravenswood?
Neighbors post their ideas to the site and subsequent visitors can show their support for the suggestion — be it for a wine bar or an upscale laundromat — by clicking "me too," similar to a Facebook "like."
"If I was an owner of a building or a realtor, I'd be looking at that," said Kahl.