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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

Time To Rethink Business Districts In Wake Of Coronavirus, Uptown Leaders Say

More pedestrian zones and expanded outdoor cafe seating could transform Uptown's commercial corridors, leaders said Thursday.

Casino Uptown will bring a night of dancing, gambling and fun to the Aragon Ballroom.
Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
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UPTOWN — Uptown has been booming in recent years, with a slew of major developments in the works, billions of dollars in public transit improvements and movement on a revitalized entertainment district.

That progress is threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, but the outbreak could allow businesses and the city to get creative in rethinking the neighborhood, Uptown leaders said Thursday.

“We’re not going back to the way things were before,” Ald. Harry Osterman, whose 48th Ward includes the Argyle business district, said at Thursday’s State of Uptown meeting. “People will be a lot more reliant on their neighborhoods. It’s going to make communities around Chicago that much more important.”

Since the pandemic hit Chicago, business members of the Uptown United chamber of commerce have shed 265 jobs, said Jackie Loewe, board president of the chamber group. The economic downturn has hit the area’s minority-owned business particularly hard, she said.

There are immediate ways to help such businesses, including financial assistance and the deferring of tax collections. But city leaders and the business community must also think of longterm ways to keep Uptown’s business district viable, officials at the meeting said.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago) said she is hopeful more federal help will be on the way for small businesses and municipalities whose budgets have been decimated by the pandemic.

Uptown-area elected officials and business leaders discuss the “State of Uptown” at a virtual meeting Thursday.

The House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion aid package called the Heroes Act, which has been labeled a nonstarter by the U.S. Senate. Schakowsky acknowledged the bill’s uphill battle to getting enacted, but she said the most “passable” aspect of the bill is $500 billion for state and municipal budgets. Of that pool of money, Chicago can expect $5 billion and Illinois $18 billion in federal aid over two years.

With that help in the pipeline, Schakowsky told Uptown leaders to start considering a “reasonable wish list” of projects that will help the neighborhood to pivot to the new normal.

“I would recommend that you start getting in line for the things Uptown needs,” Schakowsky said.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) listed five major development projects in the works in Uptown, and at least three others that have been proposed but need approval. Development will likely slow due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy, but the neighborhood still has to consider ways to slow gentrification and help boost its stable of affordable housing and minority businesses.

“Uptown is going through gentrification,” Cappleman said. “We’ve become a victim of our own success.”

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As Chicago slowly begins to re-open some businesses, local leaders will need think of ways to help commercial districts thrive through the pandemic.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said allowing restaurants to re-open patios and retailers to begin curbside service is a start, but the city needs to work with businesses to help them adjust to life during the outbreak.

“It’s a challenging thing to look at,” Vasquez said. “In a lot of instances, it’s rethinking the business model.”

One of the ideas being considered is closing some streets to allow for more cafe seating and social-distance friendly shopping.

Ald. Matt Martin (47th) has asked constituents what streets in his ward would work as pedestrian zones. Another idea is to introduce “shared streets” in more residential areas, allowing for parking but not through-traffic as a way to allow for social distancing and more space for cafe seating.

As commuting falls out of favor and working from home becomes more common, neighbors will have to be able to serve the entirety of residents’ needs, leaders said. That can be a positive thing for local retail and restaurant businesses, but only if it is done in a smart and equitable way.

“In the long term … there are a lot of potential benefits,” Vasquez said.

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