The Changing Nature of Clark Street Retail in Lincoln Park

City: Chicago, IL
School Name:
Frances Parker High School
Teacher Name:
Susan Elliot 
Student Names: 
Jared S.

Why did you want to focus on this particular issue?/Why is it important to you?
I attend Francis W. Parker School, located in the eastern portion of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. To travel to and from school, I use Clark Street, one of the North Side’s most prominent retail corridors. As I looked day after day at the shops lining Clark Street, I began to notice an increasing number of “for lease” signs popping up in storefront windows in addition to the several empty business spaces on the street which seemed to have been collecting dust for years on end. I also noticed a change in the composition of the retail toward more service-oriented venues, and I became curious about the reasons as to why this retail corridor was changing.

However, when I researched online to find answers, I found only a few short articles published on the general topic of Clark Street’s retail vacancies but not any definitive answers or solutions. Though I do not reside in Lincoln Park myself, I care deeply for the community as I spend a considerable portion of my academic year there, and as a student with an interest in urban affairs and independent retail sustainability, I was concerned by the state into which the neighborhood corridor was entering.

Therefore, in a passionate effort to explore my question, I conducted a school-approved independent study in the first semester of my senior year about the nature of and reasons for the change in Clark Street retail over the past decade.

What kind of research did you do for this project?
As part of my background research for the study, I read numerous published papers on the changing nature of brick-and-mortar retail, the growth of e-commerce in the United States over the last decade, and the long-lasting effects an independent retail corridor has on its surrounding community. The information I read as part of this research adequately prepared me for the preceding portions of my study. Following background research, I collected business occupancy data on the Clark Street corridor via the use of previous Google Street Captures, panoramic shots taken annually by Google of virtually every street in the United States. With each capture, I logged the status of each business space between Clark/Diversey and Clark/Webster in two large Google spreadsheets: one for even addresses (west side of the street), and one for odd (east side of the street). Each spreadsheet contained a column for each year of the captures, 2007-2020. I then assigned each business an SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) Code, and used those codes to calculate the relative percentages of retailers, service businesses, etc. in a given year.

Important to studying the composition of a retail corridor is understanding its surrounding population. Therefore, as part of the study, I analyzed the census records of the tracts immediately surrounding Clark Street, looking specifically into factors such as per-capita income, median age, and population. I used data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census, along with records from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).

Finally, as part of my qualitative data collection, I conducted interviews with a number of Clark Street independent business-owners and local real estate agents. Conducting these interviews helped me understand the perspectives of people who have watched the changes that I studied occur over an extended period of time, and I enjoyed hearing their opinion on what they see for the future of the corridor.

What is your call to action/what do you want to see change?
With my research in mind, I have drafted a comprehensive, multi-step plan to help revitalize Clark Street independent retail experience so that a rich pedestrian experience, neighborhood cohesion and public safety (by decreasing vacancies) is enhanced.

Revitalize Foot Traffic:
As mentioned above, I conducted in-person interviews with close to a dozen Clark Street small business owners, many of whom have had their store for at least a decade, to understand how the corridor has changed from their perspective. When I asked about the volume of customers they receive via foot traffic, all of them confirmed a sharp decline over the past few years in the number of walk-in customers and a correlated decline in sales. To address this problem, we must focus on the millennial population who reside immediately adjacent to the corridor.

To increase foot traffic in the corridor, I propose that the 43rd Ward Alderman’s office or local Chamber of Commerce organize an event during the summer at a large local park titled “Clark-a-Palooza” (or something similar). This would be an outdoor event dedicated to showcasing the various independent retailers in Lincoln Park (Clark Street is not the only corridor struggling with vacancy). At the event, independent retailers would receive a tent and be placed in a circular formation around the park, with each business having the opportunity to showcase some of their products and spread awareness about their retail experiences. Publicity for the event will be targeted most directly to the young millennials who live in the blocks east and west of Clark Street, and admission would be free. The reason I chose to suggest an event is because the millennial generation, the group primarily living immediately around the corridor, has proven to be more drawn to “experiences”–music festivals, Virtual Reality bars, and axe-throwing franchises are just a few examples of business models which reflect these “millennial” interests. For this reason, I feel a festival geared toward this crowd may make a big difference in terms of developing longer-term retail foot traffic.

Institution of Rental Assistance Programs:
One of the leading reasons for vacancy on Clark Street is the cost of rent. Many of the longtime business owners with whom I spoke know their landlords well and have negotiated steady rent agreements, but almost all of them noted businesses on Clark Street that came and went in just a few years’ time due to the expensive rent costs (I noticed this elevated amount of openings and closings within a short period when examining the decade-worth of Google Street captures of Clark Street). Therefore, I propose the City of Chicago develop a rental assistance program for independent businesses on Clark Street, offering to pay a portion of that store’s rent for one year (perhaps in a monthly declining amount) so that new independent business owners can allocate their profits in an initial year toward other business matters, particularly promoting the new business and its uniqueness within the neighborhood. Ideally, this program would not apply to regional/national chain stores.

Apply More Pressure on Longtime Property Owners:
On Clark Street, there are a handful of longtime property owners who own several spaces along the corridor. They have been reportedly notorious for keeping their rent high and their spaces not compliant with safety codes so they are able to keep their spaces vacant in order to possibly receive more favorable property tax assessments from the county. I propose the city government put more pressure on these property owners to rent their spaces at reasonable, small business-affordable rents. The more spaces that set up shop and remain on Clark Street, the more foot traffic is likely to increase.

This project’s strength was in their RESEARCH

6 thoughts on “The Changing Nature of Clark Street Retail in Lincoln Park

  1. #cardo123 great job on making your community better by helping out and engaging with people and their business

  2. Wow! Great job with your research, this is so thorough and really interesting to read through. I often commute on the Clark bus through this corridor and used to manage a small independent retail store in another neighborhood in Chicago. Rent is one of the biggest concerns and costs for small business owners, so your focus on finding support for them in that area is really meaningful. I also love your idea about an event, Chicago is full of events like this and is often how neighbors can learn about stores in the area and become regular customers. I hope you are able to show your findings to the Alderman and other business leaders in the area and that some of your suggestions can become reality- it is important to support small businesses in Chicago!

  3. Wow! What an incredible project. The construction and execution are unbelievably complex and sophisticated. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart so I really appreciate all of the thought and hard work that were involved. Maintaining communities and brick&mortar enterprises is so, so important. I hope you continue your urban planning plans and your work on preserving our communities. Your efforts are much needed and you offer so much ability and commitment. Thank you and good luck.

  4. I am struck by the ingenious use of multiple years of Google Streetviews as a way of collecting and compiling data. The photos don’t lie, and that’s a beauty of the method. Very interesting trends, perhaps made even more difficult by the current circumstances.

  5. Fantastic project! I’ve been wondering about this too, so thank you for your thorough, informative presentation. I especially appreciated how you structured it, not only examining the history and reasons for change, but also potential solutions. Well done!

  6. Fascinating use of Google Streetview as a research tool for gathering data on businesses over a multi-year period. Difficult trends identified perhaps made even more difficult by the current circumstances.

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