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'Litter Gardens,' Chipped Paint Downtown Could Hurt Local Business

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | April 30, 2014 9:31am | Updated on April 30, 2014 9:33am
 Grant Park Conservancy President Bob O'Neill photographed what he calls "litter gardens" in the South Loop.
'Litter Gardens' in South Loop
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SOUTH LOOP — Littered planters, broken stone curbs and unpainted lamp posts may be a common sight around Downtown, but activists and tourism experts say that such conditions along the Congress Parkway Streetscape can hurt the South Loop's bottom line.

"If Chicago wants to be a global city and have increased global reach it needs to look global," Grant Park Conservancy President Bob O'Neill wrote in an email with photos that he sent to more than a dozen city staffers and Loop advocates last week. O'Neill described planters at Clark Street and Congress Parkway as "litter gardens."

"Beautification projects, including tree planting, are not just window-dressing but essential in creating a global city that attracts global tourists and jobs and Chicago's downtown economic engine fuels the entire city," O'Neill wrote. "They do need a little routine maintenance and spring cleaning."

After being contacted by O'Neill and DNAinfo.com Chicago, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Scales said "CDOT contractors cleaned out the planters and trimmed the perennials."

Chicago's rough winter weather "did play a part in pushing [regular maintenance] back a bit," Scales said.

Michael Edwards, executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, says it can be difficult for the city to maintain so much infrastructure, which is why groups like his step in to help in Special Service Areas, or SSA's, that impact them personally.

The Loop Alliance, which includes many Loop business owners, maintains State Street from Congress Parkway to Wacker Drive as the sole provider of Special Service Area 1. The alliance augments city money with privately-raised funds to host "activation" events, remove graffiti and keep planters landscaped Downtown.

"Things like sidewalks and street curbs and lamp posts and planters and banners and lights and signage are critical pieces that — if they are well-maintained, orderly and demonstrate that somebody cares about them — can convince people that downtown is a good place to be, because obviously people care about it," Edwards said.

While they may seem trivial, Edwards says things like planters and lamp posts can have a big impact on a neighborhood's bottom line.

"We've been at this since 1977 — our SSA is the biggest in the city and generates around $2.4 million," he said. "I think anybody would say that State Street, as an economic entity, is performing at a much higher level. Rents are up, occupancy is way up, property values are way up compared to 15 years ago."

He calls the impact of cosmetic improvements on revenue part of a "virtuous cycle," as opposed to a "cycle of disinvestment," which he says can cause a neighborhood to quickly deteriorate.

"We invest in the sidewalks, which gives someone the confidence to open a business, which in turn gives us more funds to do planters and lightscaping," he said. "When a public realm starts to deteriorate, sidewalks get broken, people move out, and there's less tax money to take care of it."


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