A Greater State Street

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(Photo: Louis H. Sullivan’s initials appearing in his exuberant cast-iron filigree that is–or was–the ground-floor facade of Carson Pirie Scott’s State Street store. Credit: Looper.)

It had to happen sometime. I mean, anyone who browsed through the ghost town that was Carson Pirie Scott’s downtown Chicago store at 1 South State Street this past Christmas–a year when, as uneventfully usual, Marshall Field’s State Street store was packed to the gills–suspected that Carson’s was on its last legs. You just knew that the recently completed, multi-million-dollar restoration of the store’s landmark Louis Sullivan exterior had to have an ulterior motive.

Boy, didn’t it? Saturday’s Chicago Tribune (August 26) has a smart series of articles analyzing last week’s announcement that, come spring 2007, Carson’s will close up shop on the fabled corner of State and Madison, vacating the Loop store that was the retailer’s flagship location for 103 years (see background Trib articles here and here, architecture critic Blair Kamin’s analysis here, and a Trib editorial here). Apparently, the location’s so obviously declining sales led Carson’s new owner, Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., to seek to cut its losses and run. A run that was facilitated by the current owners of the building, Joseph Freed and Associates, who actually paid Carson’s to cut out on their lease 16 years early. Yes, years–and raise your hand if you knew that Carson’s hasn’t even actually owned its own building since the turn of the millennium.

Now raise your hand if you can remember the last time you shopped at Carson’s on State Street. That’s why it makes sense for the retailer to go. As reported in the Trib, the State Street store is the worst performing Carson’s in the entire chain, and it’s hemorrhaging money. It’s easy to see why. Upper-end shoppers long ago abandoned the Loop for the tonier North Michigan Avenue retail strip, while convenient–and much cheaper–big-boxes like Target soak up the balance of sales from the likes of you and me.

Certainly, the repositioned State Street of specialty and clothing stores is thriving, thanks in great measure to the residential renaissance of the East Loop. But these new residents generally fall into two groups, neither of whom likely find a faded, overpriced retail dinosaur like Carson’s an appealing place to shop: moneyed condo dwellers; and college students–lots and lots of college students, from dorms up and down State Street. Given the lofty prices of high-end Loop condos, those condo dwellers can likely afford to shop on Mag Mile. Meanwhile, those students need to pinch every possible penny–they have transit cards and they know where the nearest Target is, thank you. The retailers who have helped bring State Street back from the bad old days are those that either have street cred with the young and hip (Urban Outfitters), fill a student need (Dick Blick’s art supply), or offer trendy, budget-priced clothing (Nordstrom Rack, Filene’s, Annie Sez, ad almost infinitum). The retailers that are struggling are the ones that have chosen to remain willfully ignorant about the East Loop’s changed retail dynamics.

Target Corp. saw this handwriting on the wall when, under its ownership, it revamped Marshall Field’s Loop store in the 1990s and introduced an air of coolness and, eventually, a slew of boutique retailers into the Grande Dame of State Street. Without that savvy trick, Field’s might never have been bought by Federated in the first place. And if Federated hadn’t come to town, there might just as well have been a “Going Out of Business” sign affixed to Field’s front door this month instead of a Macy’s nameplate. Given how little Carson’s has appeared to even try to compete on the new State Street–well, except for the cut-rate but always uber-cool window displays–who can be surprised at their departure from it? (And in this vein, don’t bet the farm on Sears, either–lately they can’t even be bothered to keep their window displays on State Street from falling over).

Not that the woes of State Street department stores are entirely the fault of poor in-house marketing decisions. Competition from suburban malls may have knocked State Street to its knees by the 1970s and left retailers on the strip floundering for ideas, but it was City Hall that delivered the collective knockout punch with the pedestrian malling of the street in 1979. Unfortunately, ridding State Street of its vehicular bustle, no matter how well intentioned, rid the street of most of its shoppers, too. During the 1980s, no fewer than five department stores closed their doors on State Street or went out of business entirely because of the disastrous mall concept, including Goldblatt’s (1981), the original Sears (1983), Montgomery Ward (1985), Wieboldt’s (1987), and Charles A. Stevens (1989). And still, it wasn’t until 1996 that the City finally decided to pull the plug on the mall and return vehicles–and bustle–to the ailing thoroughfare.

The return of at least the appearance of vitality to the heart of the Loop was all it took. Target came and renewed Field’s. The Art Institute and Columbia College renovated underutilized State Street buildings into bustling student dormitories. Not to be outdone, residential developers came, too, to reuse old office buildings and warehouses as new, upscale condos, and to construct a brand new East Loop skyline of residential towers that continues to grow in size.

Amid all of this renewal, a retailer that can’t be bothered to apply a fresh coat of paint to its walls every ten years, much less apply itself to a business plan recognizing the fundamentally changed retail landscape in which it now finds itself, just doesn’t seem to fit anymore. Given how tenuous State Street’s recovery still is nigh ten years since the jettisoning of the ped mall concept, to my mind if a retailer doesn’t appear to want to take part in the exciting new economic reality that State Street is becoming, for the good of State Street and downtown retailing in general, that retailer shouldn’t be there.

I’d bet that was Freed’s thinking when they bought Carson’s out of its lease. Freed obviously cares about the building, their renovation has made 1 South State look better than it has in years–especially with the replacement of the cornice that had been absent for more than half a century. So there’s little reason to worry that new plans for the building will muck up its landmarked interiors and exteriors. In fact, Freed has already redeveloped the building’s upper floors into successful office space and, for the School of the Art Institute, classrooms. The expectation is that Freed will similarly redevelop the balance of the building, while turning over the bottom two floors to one or more retailers with a greater interest in State Street than Carson’s apparently has.

Speaking as a State Street resident living a mere 300 house numbers from the corner of State and Madison, I couldn’t be happier. It’s a satisfying thing to live on a healthy, thriving downtown street. The west side of State Street directly across from Carson’s is the street’s most recent success story, with every retail storefront finally leased and open for business and a true diversity of stores (not to mention one huge Office Depot). While I fear that Freed’s may not be able to find one retailer to take over the entire ground-floor space at 1 South State, if the success of the west side of the street is any indication, I have no doubt more than a few specialty retailers are already drooling at the chance to be housed in such swank digs (if Freed hasn’t lined a few interested parties up, already).

Much as a moniker may have historic resonance, a city can’t live on its laurels. I may be from New York, but I loathe to see the end of Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott on State Street. An in the case of Field’s, I can only imagine the outcry from Gothamites were it Field’s kicking Macy’s out of Herald Square. Still, in the wake of Carson’s unexpected exit from the Loop, perhaps, equally unexpectedly, Chicagoans may now hew a little bit closer to the State Street store formerly known as Marshall Field’s. True, the retailer inside may be new in town and a bit too big for its NYC britches. But the building still houses a hoary old department store, just like it has for a hundred years, and, happily, that’s not changing. If there’s one thing you can say about Macy’s, they, at least, appear fully committed to making the best go of it that they possibly can at running a successful flagship department store on State Street.

In recent years, that’s more than anyone could have credibly said for Carson’s.

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