Placemaking Chicago - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Placemaking Chicago

Helping people improve communities, one place at a time

Chicago's People Spots

Spots 'park' people, not cars, outside local businesses

Three summers have passed since Chicago became one of the first U.S. cities to reimagine on-street parking as places to “park” people, instead of cars. People Spots repurpose existing parking spaces into seasonal parklets for public use to generate community and economic development by attracting more people to retail corridors where they are shopping, people watching or just plain having fun. Each People Spot is wheelchair-accessible and outfitted with seating and planters (which provide a barrier to the street). They are maintained and paid for by local businesses, rather than by the City of Chicago.

At the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), we know these types of Placemaking tools have a lasting positive effect on neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Our purpose with this study was to learn more about People Spots’ impact on local businesses.

In July and August 2014, MPC and Sam Schwartz Engineering surveyed all nine Spots across the city to learn more about how people are using them and to gauge their economic impact. We recorded activity at each Spot on an average day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and interviewed more than 100 people and almost 40 local business owners and business associations. In total, we recorded 450 people using the spots across nine locations. Here’s what local business owners told us.

Better for business? 'Absolutely.'

At Heritage Bicycles, 2959 N. Lincoln Ave., owner Michael Salvatore thinks the People Spot out front is “absolutely better for business.” He has found that customers visit Heritage Bicycles to hang out in the People Spot, calling it “Instagram Heaven,” which also helps to promote his business on social media. We, too, found that people love the Spot. Over the course of the day, we counted 83 people in the Spot, staying on average for 36 minutes. And of those who responded to the survey, 73 percent said that if it wasn’t for the little park, they’d be at home. Providing a variety of activities and amenities brings more people to an area for different reasons. In this case shopping, coffee or leisure time in the People Spot has brought more people to this once underused corner, which now bustles with activity throughout the day and evening.

Business owners overwhelmingly agreed that the Spots promote economic activity: 81 percent said the Spots are better for business, and 80 percent agreed that the People Spot brought more foot traffic and customers to the street. “Build it and they will come,” said Becca Girsch, owner of the She One clothing boutique across from the Spot at 3551 N. Southport Ave. “Every time I look at the Spot, people of different ages are enjoying it. It has taken on its own life. The community has made it its own.”

Some businesses even found that the People Spot contributed to a 10 to 20 percent increase in sales. A whopping 93 percent said the feeling of the street is more positive since the People Spot opened. They added, “It makes people comfortable,” “gives a better sense of community,” “slowed down traffic,” “gives us a better image,” “it’s attractive,” “makes the street look cleaner“ and that “no question it has enhanced the pedestrian experience.” Dane Redaway, manager of the Akira clothing store in Andersonville, finds the Spot outside his store at 5228 N. Clark St. to be “like a town square” that’s better for business because “people sit and stare at the storefront windows.” Mark Robertson, who is planning to open an upscale restaurant on the south end of Andersonville, would like a People Spot in front of his location. “Even if [people] do not patronize the business that day, they may be more likely to return another time,” he said.

Spots prompt businesses to 'up their game'

When asked if the People Spot drove businesses to invest more in the appearance of their business, Heather Way Kitzes, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and Special Service Area #27, found that building the two People Spots (Lincoln and Southport avenues) in the Special Service Area had even broader impact. “They prompted us to look and reevaluate all that we were doing … to up our game in other places.” Business owners also take pride in the Spots. Francisco Fourcade, owner of Osteria Pizza Metro, finds it valuable to keep the People Spot at 2863 N. Clark St., directly in front of his business, “looking sharp and clean.” Salvatore at Heritage soon realized people sitting in the Spot “would look directly at my storefront, so I invested in subway tiles on the front of the store so it would look nice.” While maintaining a people spot requires some effort, Francis Lee, owner of De Rice at 920 E. 47th St. in Bronzeville pointed out that “it is better than getting a permit for a sidewalk café” (which can be a complicated process). He found that the time he put into the People Spot was certainly worth it because “people do pay more attention” to his restaurant and they “feel safer and more comfortable with the Spot being there.”

Many business owners found that the People Spots encouraged pedestrians to slow down and take a fresh look at the shopping and dining opportunities in their neighborhoods. For example, Maria Rodriguez, owner of El Nuevo Mexicano at 2914 N. Clark St., directly in front of the People Spot, said, "The People Spot has called more attention to our restaurant. The bright colors, the artwork and plantings have made Clark Street a lot cozier in front of my restaurant." By making the streetscape more physically attractive and inviting, People Spots can foster more interest in local businesses.

Many business associations use the People Spots in marketing to promote the retail corridor and have held events in the Spots. Christyn S. Henson, of Quad Communities Development Corporation, organized a jazz night at the People Spot in Bronzeville in 2012 and “Bronzeville Nights” in 2013, which featured an evening of arts, culture and entertainment, with tap dancers in the People Spots at 643 and 918 47th Street. In West Lakeview, 50 neighbors came together for a potluck dinner at the 2959 N. Lincoln Ave. Spot, and in Andersonville a brass band performed.

And, perhaps because the People Spots take up parking spots, businesses have reported that they improve perceptions of safety. Lee Cano, co-owner of The Coffee Studio at 5628 N. Clark St., said the street “feels safer because the Spot extends the sidewalk and narrows the street.”

People Spots a powerful neighborhood economic development tool

Brian Bonnano of the Andersonville Development Corporation has found that some of the new restaurants coming to Andersonville ask about getting a People Spot, despite ample patio space and regulations that prohibit food service in the Spot. “It’s all about foot traffic,” he said. Maureen Martino, executive director of Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, saw the potential to use the Spots to activate a stretch of Clark Street that needed a boost in foot traffic. The Chamber wanted “to activate the street because it’s a challenging location. [The People Spot will] increase pedestrian counts and shine a light on local businesses.” Not only is a People Spot perceived as a way to increase pedestrian traffic, but many respondents said it helps “make the street feel safer because it extends the sidewalk. When it’s not there, people park in the crosswalk.” Bonnano also remarked that in a neighborhood without a park, “We need a place to relax and gather, a place to stop and take in the surroundings.”

The study results demonstrate the power of returning a small amount of street space to people. The findings show People Spots not only are well used by pedestrians but can be a powerful economic tool for neighborhood businesses. The Chicago Dept. of Transportation is working to grow the initiative; for more information, please visit Make Way for People.

Icons designed by Jeremy J. Bristol, Claire Jones, Wilson Joseph, Tommy Lau, Hyemi Park, Luis Prado and Klara Zalokar from thenounproject.com.