Uptown’s Argyle Street is one of the more unique, multicultural commercial corridors in Chicago. MPC and ULI organized a Technical Assistance Panel in November 2008 to recommend ways to promote and improve this dynamic, one-of-a-kind, business corridor. Read the recommendations for moving forward with a new vision.
Chicago can easily boast several unique ethnic business areas; Chinatown, Little Italy, and Greektown quickly come to mind. Part of the reason that these areas are so well known is because their identity is clear and recognizable, and they do a great job bringing together the business owners to develop and promote that identity. Argyle Street, a pan-asian retail strip that attracts customers from the suburbs and even other states, is still a largely undiscovered treasure. Located between Sheridan Road on the east and Broadway on the west, Argyle Street’s complex ethnic makeup consists of many different Southeast Asian entrepreneurs and has served a very unique niche, primarily providing culturally specific products, fresh Asian wholesale goods, and a wonderful variety of restaurants to their customers. Its diversity sets Argyle Street apart from many other corridors, yet also presents a branding and promotion challenge.
Customers come from all over the city, region, and nearby states to take advantage of Argyle Street’s unique variety of goods, but growing competition from suburban Asian supermarkets may be threatening its traditional customer base. As such, the Argyle Business District must look at new ways of attracting a broader base of customers to sustain its character and thriving business mix.
Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th Ward), Ald. Helen Shiller (46th Ward), and Uptown United reached out to MPC and the Urban Land Institute-Chicago (ULI) to conduct a two-day ULI Technical Assistance Panel for the Argyle District. The panel brought together experts in the fields of business and community development, marketing, real estate development, planning, and design. The panel also included volunteers with relevant cultural knowledge of the community to ensure the recommendations were grounded and realistic, given the districts unique ethnic makeup. The panel met in November 2008 to explore marketing, leadership development, and physical design solutions to improve and sustain the district in the face of new market realities.
Chaired by Ngoan Le, Vice President of programs at the Chicago Community Trust, the panel recognized the potential of this corridor immediately and honed in on a few key dynamics. With the corridor’s close proximity to the Uptown Square Entertainment District on Lawrence Avenue and some natural spill over of businesses from Argyle Street on to Broadway Street, the Argyle Business District has the opportunity to expand and connect with complementary activity centers in the neighborhood and, in turn, benefit from that increased foot traffic and customer base. Another opportunity is the variety of high quality and unique products that can easily attract local residents and “foodies” interested in fresh, seasonal foods. The corridor is situated in an area with huge purchasing power; residents within a half-mile radius spend more than $270 million on retail expenditures and $32 million on eating and drinking expenditures alone. Expand that out to a five minute drive and those numbers balloon to $1 billion and $12.1 million respectively. If Argyle Street can capture even a small portion of that buying power, the businesses would become very profitable.
The district faces several challenges in growing its customer base and retaining businesses. Many businesses close early and lock up behind burglar bars, increasing perceptions of a lack of safety. With needed façade repairs to the buildings and CTA Argyle Red Line station, the corridor tends to look unkempt. Rising rent costs and a lack of consumer foot traffic during weekdays also hurts business. To address these opportunities and challenges, the panel presented an array of potential activities to improve the District. Some include:
- Sustain and improve the local businesses: This can be done by uniting currently disparate activities and harnessing local leadership to address common concerns such as clean streets, better lighting, marketing, and promotional events. Argyle Street is currently served by Uptown Business Partners and Uptown United, two organizations that work in tandem to attract investment and promote business development in the neighborhood. In addition, many small informal organizations have formed to network and support specific initiatives. Uptown United and Uptown Business Partners can work with these various informal networks to determine what can be accomplished under a formalized effort and should continue as separate initiatives. Activities may include local tours, cooking classes, and developing a well-recognized Asian Night Market where business owners stay open late into the evening or early in the morning, open their businesses onto the street, and possibly connect to an event or series of events occurring within entertainment district. (Asian Night Market Photo)
- Engage local residents: Improving the shopping environment and making the products more accessible to customers that may be unfamiliar with them can help the District engage the largely untapped local market demand discussed above. Local leadership can help connect businesses with the local block clubs. Tidying up storefront displays, working through the Special Service Area to clean the streets, and eventually implementing broader initiatives such as streetscaping and lighting can all work to attract the broader Uptown community.
- Incorporate Argyle into a larger Asian destination: The Argyle Business District is known by many names, but none have truly encompassed all that this unique district is. Many efforts have attempted to brand it, yet often they only supported one aspect of the diverse community i.e. North Chinatown, Little Vietnam, Little Siagon. Even some of the physical designs have missed the mark. Most notably is the Chinese-centered pagoda over the CTA station. The panel suggested a more subtle approach, calling it “Asia on Argyle” and creating visual markers that pull from many icons and symbols that represent the variety of cultures.
In addition, as businesses on Argyle Street have grown, many have relocated to larger spaces along Broadway Street. Thus, in many ways, Argyle Street itself has served as an incubator because of its smaller storefronts, organically expanding the district beyond historic Argyle Street boundaries. Thus, whatever visual markers and streetscape designs are developed should tie Argyle to its broader geographic boundaries that spill over north and south along Broadway.
- Implement parking management and enhancement strategies: Given the amount of activity that occurs along the street during peak hours – truck deliveries, pedestrian activity, driving – Argyle can get very congested. While there is not a lot of land for new parking, many strategies can be implemented to improve the use of existing parking and transportation assets. Shared parking, creating more short-term parking in existing parking lots, installing meters, and utilizing restaurant valets can all help to increase parking turnover, and decrease the number of people who park for a long period to ride the train, visit the lake, and other activities that don’t support the businesses. Also, connecting Argyle to the nearby Wilson Yards redevelopment and Truman College can draw more visitors by train.
Download Discover Asia on Argyle.