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Magnificent Mile Storefronts Gear Up for Cutthroat Beautification Contest

 Magnificent Mile business owners get hyper competitive about their streetscapes for the annual Beautification Awards.
Beautification Awards Bring Big Competition to Magnificent Mile
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STREETERVILLE — It's not a Grammy, Emmy or Oscar, but Corinna Wenks, director of rooms at Park Hyatt Chicago, says she treasures the Beautification Award her hotel won in 2013 for its streetscape display.

"It's a big 'thank you' for the efforts we're putting in, that we're recognized," Wenks said of the awards, which are handed out annually by Downtown business group the Magnificent Mile Association.

Indeed, property owners credit The Magnificent Mile's annual Beautification Awards — which continues this year with judging early next month — as inspiring property owners to go all out in creating and maintaining the displays.

Lizzie Schiffman chats about the friendly competition between Michigan Avenue businesses to look their best:

 Before the Beautification Awards raised the stakes for streetscapes, Michigan Avenue's decorations were sparse.
Michigan Avenue Flashbacks
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The competition, they say, has become downright cutthroat.

The displays have included a variety of flourishes over the years, including a topiary dragon at Saks Fifth Avenue; a fall harvest at the Apple Store featuring scarecrows, pumpkins and a basket with free apples; and elaborate wrought-iron fencing at the InterContinental Hotel.

The InterContinental even went as far as to dig out parts of its vaulted sidewalk out front to create space for the roots of mature trees it was planting.

Beautifying Michigan: A History

The Beautification Awards started about 15 years ago to address the problem of unattractive or poorly tended streetscapes on high-traffic Michigan Avenue, according to John Chikow, president and CEO of the Magnificent Mile Association.

"The initial motivation was certainly a desire to encourage the various property owners and stores to take a little more pride" in their outdoor presentation, Chikow said.

"In the old days, a lot of properties just had grass in front, and a little plastic chain link fence — it was really cheesy-looking," he said. So the Magnificent Mile Association "put a little committee together and started working on the properties, to say, 'Hey, come on, we can do a little better than this.'"

The committee first launched three annual, seasonal garden walks, where they would inspect planters and sidewalk conditions and give property managers private feedback.

Comments would address issues like "your wrought iron was rusty and hadn't been scraped and painted, or the outside of your building needs metalwork close to the sidewalk, or a particular property may not have cleaned the gum off of their sidewalks for a while, so committee members may say go get the steamer and clean the gum off your sidewalk," Chikow said.

But the spirit of competition quickly caught on.

"The plastic chains gave way to wrought iron, then you had some people creating experiences with marble and wrought iron," he said. "Over time, the property owners were stepping up their game."

About four or five years ago, Chikow says some property managers started adding "winterscapes" to their planters and sidewalks, including holiday decorations and heartier seasonal plants.

Other managers followed suit, prompting the association to add a winter awards ceremony.

Making the Grade

Sometime during the week of July 7, the association will "grade each property on North Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River and Oak Street in order to assess the condition of trees, plants, fixtures, sidewalks and façade," according to Phil Levin, the association's planning director.

"Exceptional design is defined as healthy, well-maintained, properly spaced, free of holiday lighting, colorful and sustainable horticulture," he said. "In addition to greenscape, members are asked to look for properly maintained and clean hardscape."

The score sheet has three categories: seasonal flowers and plants, judged by color, variety and sustainability; trees, and their condition; and hardscaping, like railings, facades and sidewalks. Each committee member can award just one building a "wow point."

Tacked on an otherwise perfectly-scored property, the wow point brings the highest possible score to 10 points.

While seasonal awards are handed out quarterly, the real prizes are the year-end honors. And the properities aren't afraid to toot their own horn: at the Shops at 900 North Michigan, a gold plaque announcing that the mall won last year's highest honor, the Chairman's Award, is prominently displayed near the entrance.

Building a Prize-Winning Garden

The Park Hyatt's Wenks — who walks the hotel's perimeter daily at 800 N. Michigan to make sure its 10 planters are spruced up, well-watered and free of litter and debris — said the competition puts an emphasis on being different in order to stand out.

Wenks says she tries to create displays that are "out of the ordinary, unpredictable, not necessarily something that you would expect."

"But it needs to tie in and tell a story, so when you walk down the street, you can see this is Park Hyatt." She says that image includes "streamlined, clean lines" and an "understated, classy look, so we try to stay in simple colors."

One challenge Wenks says she and other nearby businesses are constantly battling is high wind speeds at the corner of Michigan and Chicago avenues.

"We are one of the windiest streets you can find Downtown, with direct access to the lake, so we have to be very careful that we're not putting something out that can't hold up to the weather."

Inspiring Other Cities

Chikow says the Beautification Awards have been so successful in sprucing up Michigan Avenue's streetscape that he has made presentations to other cities looking for the same results.

"They just are amazed that everyone cooperates in what they do," he said. " ... We're studied by other Downtown business groups, because this is all done voluntarily. It's not done through any kind of self-taxing or things like that."

Last October, Chikow was at the International Downtown Business Association's World Congress watching a seminar featuring six speakers.

"Three included pictures of the Magnificent Mile as their examples of successful placemaking," Chikow said. He was stunned.

"There was no other city that had three mentions out of these six speakers. I thought, 'Wow, we have obviously made an impact not just in Chicago, but all over the world.' I think this is now our signature — this is what differentiates us from so many cities around the world."

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