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The Counselor - January, 2003

Noble Rot

Bill Testa, economist with the Federal Reserve described Chicago's future as a "prosperous decline." I'm not sure what he meant, but it brought to mind the importance of decay in cities.

We like what grows on funky side streets because the rent is cheap there - so less-profitable businesses thrive. I've had to explain this to my own hometown - that a successful, high-end retail district would draw big, smart national tenants, but that it would drive out the quirkies who can't afford it. It happened to Country Club Plaza, arguably the birthplace of the regional mall. In the upcoming meetings, we'll study how it happened at Times Square.

Over the holidays, my wife and I stole a few hours to shop. We'd anticipated shopping in the Loop. But after considering our choices, we stayed in Oak Park. We didn't head in until we'd bought music at Val's Halla, pots in a local art gallery, kids books in a children's book store, and gourmet dog treats. Run by quirkies, every one. Then we headed to the Loop, where we checked the Gap (too small, no kids' stuff) and the new Sears (better than expected) but our shopping was already done.

Yet we can't build this stuff, nor do we want to. REITs, pension funds, and corporate users invest in the more easily understood pieces. They're reliable, lucrative, and duller than the older, crankier parts of town. A major mall developer recently showed plans for a key downtown site to a local professional group. The consensus among attendees seemed to be that there wasn't much said about the site, that the developer was a suburban mass marketer, and they were mildly afraid of a giant Rainforest Cafe. But I can't help but wonder - do urban planners, real estate consultants, and architects constitute a market? By and large, Cultural Creatives (as the demographers call us) are an insufficient market. Average Joes with a little money are what keep Sears and Hallmark in business. The CREs I've met aren't mall shoppers. So are we the wrong crowd to advise on retail sites?

Given that buildings last for decades, sometimes for centuries, decay is always part of the markets. This makes me happy. When new development succeeds, I don't expect to like it. I'll settle for good design and minimal cannibalism of existing retail, and maybe someplace decent to eat on weekends. I liked the old Times Square - pinball parlors, Nathan's Hot Dogs, shoeshine stands, questionable entertainment and all. Upstairs offices filled, it seemed, with private detectives and telephone solicitors. Sure, there's a Venice in Las Vegas. But nobody in his right mind would make it like Venice, odor and all.

Decay can be beautiful, but it isn't stable - it's part of a cycle. When the shiny, noisy new Times Square has had a chance to rot a little bit, you and I will probably like it better. At the upcoming New York, meetings, I'm looking forward to learning how the new Times Square came together, but I'll probably eat in Chinatown.

Copyright 2003 - Noah Shlaes