Summertime Means Seating, Parties in Loop’s Public Spaces

activate couch pl
Last year’s Activate Couch Place event. Photo: Lisa Phillips

The Chicago Loop Alliance, one of downtown’s chambers of commerce, has announced details about its ambitious slate of summer placemaking campaigns. These include monthly “Activate” arts events held in alleys, the Gateway People Plaza on State Street, new amenities for Pritzker Park, and pop-up lunchtime seating throughout downtown. CLA expects to spend $135,000 on placemaking projects this year, from special service area funds and corporate sponsorships.

This year’s Activate events will bring libations, art, dance music, fashion and live performers to downtown alleys from 5 to 10 p.m. on May 1, June 5, August 1, September 17, and October 16. These free events will rotate between various alleys: Couch Place, located north of Randolph and between State and Dearborn, between the Chicago and Goodman theaters; the alley between the Jewelers Center and Iwan Ries cigar shop, 19 South Wabash; and the Sullivan Center alley, behind the Loop Target store at 1 South State. The location of each event will be announced the month before on the CLA’s Activate webpage. Attendees who RSVP in advance on the site will get one free drink ticket.

The May 1 event takes place in the Sullivan Center alley, located on Monroe between Wabash and State. “It’s a very heavily used, working alley,” said CLA director Michael Edwards. “It’s actually a covered alley, out of the elements, so it’s no problem if it rains.”

The happening will feature “immersive art” from the collective Johalla Projects, exploring the “death of winter and rise of spring” through special lighting and lasers. Artists include Todd Diederich, Heather Gabel, Brittini Hessler, Andrea Jablonski, Ellen Nielsen and Meg Noe. Zipcar car-sharing will sponsor DJed music. Along with Zipcar, the Activate series is supported by Blick Art Materials, Columbia College, Craft Brew Alliance, Do312, Exchequer Restaurant & Pub, Pabst Blue Ribbon, School of the Art Institute, Smilebooth, and WBEZ.

The Gateway people plaza on State Street
The Gateway seating area. Photo: Steven Vance

The Gateway, a landscaped median on State Street between Lake and Wacker, will once again enliven an underused plaza (and remnant of the old State Street Mall) with flowers and café seating for up to 50 people. It’s slated to reopen by the first weekend in May, Edwards said. This year there will be additional programming, possibly including music, art installations, dance and film screenings.

Pritzker Park, an underused green space at the northwest corner of State and Van Buren across from the Harold Washington Library Center, is scheduled to get new amenities by June 1. “In many ways it’s a pass-through park on the way to the Library ‘L’ station,” said Edwards. “We hope that by adding amenities, we can get more people to stop and enjoy this underperforming urban space.”

The CLA will be adding stationary umbrella tables, as well as movable two-top tables and chairs. Free Wi-Fi is currently available at the park, but the chamber will add signs to advertise this feature, as well as placards and banners branding the space as Pritzker Park.

The CLA is currently finalizing an agreement with the Chicago Park District to help manage the space. The chamber recently met with the staff from the nearby library to discuss programming for the space, and will soon meet with other neighbors, like Robert Morris College, DePaul University, John Marshall Law School, and the Fisher Building apartments. “Our challenge is to get everybody really comfortable with the space, so they might be able to incorporate their own uses,” Edwards said. “A bunch of students sitting on the grass listening to their professor is not something you see there right now.”

Similarly, the pop-up seating program, with the Twitter-friendly name “#CitySeats,” has the goal of encouraging more people to take advantage of the Loop’s existing open spaces. Tables and chairs will rotate between up to 150 different spaces, both public and private. The seating will be placed at various locations three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., starting May 12.

The chamber has already secured permits from the city and from private owners to use the spaces, and they’ve hired a UIC student to document the program and keep track of how people use the small seating areas. “It’s kind of an experiment in placemaking,” Edwards said.

  • BlueFairlane

    I found that picture off-putting last year, and I feel the same about it this year. I don’t like contradiction implied by encouraging people to use public space by adding security and managing access. I’d prefer to just have an alley.

  • iWalk

    Now if we could just get the city to stop letting businesses install outdoor seating that takes up the entire sidewalk. Still not sure why that is allowed all over the loop, but every year we are confronted with constricted sidewalks that are barely wide enough for one person.

  • David Altenburg

    Agreed. I assume that, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to come with my kid. How is this different than a bar? Don’t get me wrong, I love bars (though not the types with velvet ropes), but it’s hard to get too excited about turning public spaces into additional ones.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Is that alley when used as proposed any different than when public streets are closed off for street fairs? The may be “open” to the public, but at a price. Don’t get me wrong, groups that do this are ok with me. Just don’t whip it up to be more than what it is. Because even if it’s public “space” it really isn’t if there is admission to pay.

  • As stated in the article, the Activate events are free. They even give away free booze.

  • jared

    The admission to the street fairs is usually a suggested donation, though they try to make it seem mandatory.