The pandemic that swept through North America in Spring 2020 brought unforeseen, unimaginable hardships to businesses everywhere. Chicago’s Uptown, a north-side neighborhood centered around Argyle Avenue and Broadway Street, was a classic example. Much of its business district is made up of small, family-run restaurants and shops. As public health officials implemented safety protocols to control the spread of the virus, Uptown’s businesses were faced with weeks-long closures and then new social-distancing regulations that resulted in a precipitous drop in business.
Uptown United, a community organization that advocates for Uptown residents and businesses, already had a working relationship with SmithGroup. Together, they explored how they might help the local business community weather the pandemic.
After spending time talking individually with Uptown business owners, the team soon realized that no single “one size fits all” solution would work. Different businesses had different needs. Some, for example, would benefit from additional outdoor space for their customers, while others preferred a curbside pick-up zone for take-out food orders.
The solution is a streetscape plan with a menu of design options. It allows each business to select the elements that best serve their customers. At the same time, the array of options makes it feasible for the City of Chicago to find a way to permit an unconventional use.
By re-envisioning uses of the public right of way, the plan demonstrates how more flexibility empowers communities to implement a tailored solution. Until presented with a palette of possible options, many business owners had no idea streetscape changes were even possible. That was even more apparent among Uptown’s immigrant business owners, many of whom do not consider English their primary language. The plan also presents new possibilities for City of Chicago officials, eager to help its communities while still adhering to municipal codes and safety regulations.
The plan solves a problem everyone wants to solve: Keeping a community’s residents and businesses safe and healthy. As communities everywhere continue to face an uncertain future regarding COVID-19, a flexible streetscape can be an equitable and empowering path forward.