THE LOOP — The Loop's next hip food court could literally be underground.
A local nonprofit is working to make the Downtown Pedway a place to stay after getting a green light from top city officials.
For decades, the Pedway's system of tunnels has helped Loop commuters get to work or the train without going outside when the weather is cold.
But the Pedway has a problem: People don't use it for anything else.
"If it's nice, we're going outside. We're Chicagoans," said tour guide Wayne Galasek, a Pedway enthusiast. "When people are confused or scared, they're not going to use it."
The Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center hosted workshops this week to field ideas from architects, Loop businesses and others on how to improve the Pedway, which despite its promise and popularity is dark, hard to navigate and in many places uninviting.
The group's early ideas, some of which could be included in a formal proposal this spring, include bringing pop-up restaurants and food carts down to the Pedway, starting an underground farmers market, and introducing natural light and fresh air to bring the outdoors in. Better signs and maps are in the mix, and impromptu concerts could also become part of the Pedway norm.
"Believe it or not, I see the Pedway as a tourism opportunity," said Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago. "You know you can take it from Point A to Point B. What we have to think about is 'Why else go down there?'"
Duncan Jackson, an engineer working on the project, hopes to use color, shapes and patterns to better identify parts of the Pedway and orient passersby. The Pedway closes at 7 p.m. weekdays, and enthusiasts hope to expand its hours to accommodate more guests.
Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, hatched the idea after walking through the Pedway with a colleague last year.
"Finding signage was a bit difficult," he said.
Armed with $125,000 in fundraising, the group has tapped design firms Burohappold Engineering, Davis Brody Bond and Billings Jackson Design to examine how to improve the key stretch of the Pedway along Randolph Street.
The team met last fall with representatives of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and various Loop groups, who Learner said endorsed the study.
The city's aim is to develop the Pedway into a destination akin to Montreal's Underground City and The Underground in Atlanta. But some officials said they're not trying to commercialize the Pedway too much.
"The Pedway is not a mall. We don't want people to come down there and think we're taking your money," said Susan Friel, a visual arts coordinator for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
Learner said his team will take the workshop's ideas and compile them into a formal proposal to the city by the end of March. The cost of any improvements, or their source of funding, has not been determined.
"The first question is 'What do you want to finance?'" Learner said.
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