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Chicago foot traffic is back but not the retail.

Loop's weekend foot traffic exceeds level before pandemic, but retail vacancies still at record high

The Chicago Loop Alliance released its latest report on the Loop, finding that it offered some signs of a revival.

By Amy Yee, Suntimes

Apr 23, 2024

The Loop is showing some signs of a revival as the average weekend foot traffic exceeded pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter, the Chicago Loop Alliance said Tuesday. But the group’s report said weekday activity still lags.

The average weekend pedestrian activity on State Street was at 107% of 2019 levels. During the workweek from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., foot traffic was about 91% of pre-pandemic activity.

Total pedestrian activity on State Street was up 7% compared to the first quarter of 2023, representing 1.5 million “impressions” per week, and at 94% of 2019 levels. The impressions are counted by analytics firm Springboard MRI, which collects data daily from counters on top of buildings along State Street, from Ida B. Wells Drive to Wacker Drive, that track silhouettes of people but not any identifying features.

The area’s cultural institutions reported some wins, with total attendance in the first quarter up 24% year over year, or more than 995,000 attendees. In spite of January’s stretch of extreme cold, the number of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago rose 5% compared to first-quarter 2023, including a notable increase in international tourists. The Joffrey Ballet reported its “highest-grossing and highest-attended season in the company’s history,” said Brian Smith, chief advancement officer of the Joffrey Ballet.

Hotel occupancy was 51%, up 3 percentage points from the same period in 2023, and 11 percentage points lower than the first quarter of 2019.

Chicagoans and visitors are returning to the Loop, “but we have to give them a reason to stay,” said Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance. “The Loop needs more investors to bet big on our district right now,” he said, citing wins from Google and JPMorgan Chase for their plans to open or refurbish offices in the Loop.

Downtowns across the U.S. have been struggling with vacant storefronts and even empty offices as employees work remotely and companies shift operations. The retail vacancy rate in the Loop was a record-high 30%, according to the Chicago Loop Alliance.

Yet there are promising initiatives to increase traffic and residents, including the city’s recent announcement of plans to convert four La Salle Street office buildings to residential.

“These four mixed-use, mixed-income buildings will transform the iconic corridor,” the Chicago Loop Alliance said in its report.

The projects would create 1,037 apartments, with at least 319 projected to have affordable rents through TIF assistance. Leasing is planned to start in late 2026 or early 2027, said Planning and Development Commissioner Ciere Boatright.

Meanwhile, new businesses have opened in the Loop. Industry Ales Brewpub opened April 1 at 230 S. Wabash Ave. And late last year, the owners of the landmark Italian Village restaurant on 71 W. Monroe St. piloted a new bar, Bar Sotto, in its basement.

Visitors gather around a bar inside Bar Sotto.

Inside the recently opened Bar Sotto, launched by the owners of restaurant Italian Village in the Loop.Italian Village

Bar Sotto is now open Wednesdays through Saturdays but will close temporarily in late summer for renovations.

Business has returned since the pandemic, when Italian Village closed another restaurant in its building and its basement bar, now housing Bar Sotto.

The restaurant is “pretty packed every night,” said fourth-generation owner Jonathan Capitanini. “There aren’t enough restaurants and bars downtown.”

While Italian Village, opened in 1927, is a long-standing destination for older guests, Capitanini and co-owner and sister, Giovanna, decided to launch Bar Sotto to attract younger customers in their 20s, like themselves. The result is “an Italian take on a Chicago dive bar.” It has a neighborhood feel, Jonathan Capitanini said, and many of its current customers live nearby in the Loop or South Loop.

“We get a lot of business from theaters,” he said, citing nearby venues CIBC Theatre, Nederlander and Goodman. “When shows are in, business ticks up 25%. Their success is our success.”

Despite vacancy signs plastering Loop storefronts, the Capitaninis are still bullish on the iconic area.

“She and I see opportunities. There’s still a lot of demand and interest being in the Loop,” he said.

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