CDOT Sets Out to Bring More Street Life to Almost 50 Plazas

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Rendering of "Game On!" installation at 62nd and Drexel in Woodlawn.

As part of the Make Way for People program, which seeks to create places where residents can relax, socialize, and maybe enjoy some culture, the Chicago Department of Transportation is seeking proposals to activate nearly 50 plazas across the city. “The concept behind the request for proposals is we believe these spaces have a lot of potential but they’re currently underutilized,” said CDOT Project Director Janet Attarian. “We’d like to see them be better maintained and enlivened with new amenities and programming. It’s really about creative ways to promote positive activity in our public spaces.”

CDOT already has a number of placemaking success stories. The department has helped install five “People Spots,” car parking spaces and loading zones converted into miniature parks, in Bronzeville, Lakeview and Andersonville. The Gateway seating area, the city’s first “People Plaza,” located on a median at State and Wacker, is getting 40 to 50 visitors per afternoon. This year the Little Village Chamber of Commerce entered a Make Way for People use agreement with the city to program Perez Plaza, 26th and Kolin, with activities like Sunday afternoon mariachi concerts that draw upwards of 100 people.

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People Spot at Little Black Pearl arts center in Bronzeville. Photo: CDOT

In addition, the winners of a design competition led by Architecture for Humanity Chicago are using $1,000 mini grants to activate plazas in Woodlawn, East Garfield Park and Old Town, as well as a “People Street” on Laflin between Blue Island and 21st in Pilsen. The Woodlawn People Plaza, located at 62nd and Drexel, was completed two weeks ago with an installation called “Game On!” by Meghan Funk and Kevin Pazik, a series of multicolored board game-like designs painted on the entire concrete floor of the plaza. “That was one of those spaces that didn’t have much going on before,” Attarian said. “It was just sort of closed right-of-way. The use of color and playfulness is very helpful.”

The city-owned plazas and malls that are covered by the current RFP range from 2,000 to 14,000 square feet in size and include spaces like the pedestrian mall at 63rd and Green in Englewood, Joe DiMaggio Plaza in Little Italy, and Mautene Court in Wicker Park. Potential programming could range from music nights to artists in residency programs to winter ice sculpting, plus a myriad of other possibilities, Attarian said. She expects the RFP will probably be most appealing for nonprofit organizations, but it’s not limited to them. She noted that while some plaza locations might be more appealing than others to potential contractors, when combined in one package, the high-traffic locations balance out the low-traffic ones, much like the advertising deal for Chicago’s bus shelters.

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Low-key branding on an Audi-sponsored parklet in San Francisco. Photo: Dwell

The city will be providing $50,000 in seed money to fund cultural programming during the first year of the contract. Additional revenue for the contractor could come from advertising, retail opportunities, sponsorship and grants, Attarian said. “A lot of companies are interested in placemaking nowadays,” she said. “Once you get people to come to a space, there’s an opportunity for advertising and retail. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.” She gave the example of Audi sponsoring parklets in San Francisco, an ironic matchup of a car company with an initiative that removed parking spaces.

There are a several stipulations for the winning bidder. Effective maintenance of the spaces is crucial, and in some cases the contractor will be responsible for capital improvements such as adding electricity or WiFi, or fixing tripping hazards, Attarian said. Candidates need to propose a revenue sharing model with the city, in the event that their enterprise turns a profit. Any existing positive activity at the plazas must be accommodated. For example, if there’s already a farmers market at the space on certain days, it can’t be displaced.

Attarian emphasized that the most important aspect of the project is partnering with community members and organizations to provide amenities and activities that reflect the unique local culture. “Placemaking is something that doesn’t happen as much if a government agency isn’t helping,” Attarian said. “But it’s so much about activation, it’s so much about local that it’s not something you can do top-down. Hopefully what we’ll be doing is enabling people.”

Check out the RFP here. Proposals must be received by CDOT no later than Monday, September 30, at 12 p.m. CDOT and the Department of Finance will host a pre-proposal conference meeting next Tuesday, Spetember 10, at 3:00 p.m. at DOF, 33 N. Lasalle, room 700.