As violent incidents soar, Chicago’s retail recovery stalls

Retail traffic trails the national average as crime increases in the city’s streets

Chicago Issue Archive /
Mar.March 08, 2022 09:00 AM

Chicago’s Wicker Park (Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATED March 7, 2022, 1:46 p.m.

The security footage shows people running for cover while others fall to the sidewalk as more than 20 shots ring out near The Point, a bar and live music venue in Wicker Park. The attack, which left four injured, ended when the initial gunman was fatally shot by an unidentified person.

The incident, in October, was the last straw for Kevin O’Donnell, owner of the Pint Pub and Kitchen, located just a few doors down Milwaukee Avenue. He circulated an online petition calling for more police in the area, which has already garnered 1,000 signatures.

After that shooting, we all saw a decrease in sales,” O’Donnell said. “We all felt it.”

Shootings, carjackings, murders and smash-and-grab robberies across the city have store owners worried about safety just as they are struggling to bring shoppers and diners back downtown. Retail traffic in Chicago trails the national average as violent crime in the city’s central business district continues to rise. 

Although retail activity is up 20 percent nationwide over this time last year, in Chicago it’s down 30 percent, according to location data firm Locate.ai. Meanwhile, street-level violent crime in January rose 80 percent over the prior year in five neighborhoods known for their vibrant retail sectors, according to an analysis of data provided by the Chicago Police Department.

Our residents and businesses do not feel safe. People are leery of walking their dogs, being outside and employees do not feel safe walking to their cars even with security,” O’Donnell wrote in the petition.

 

In River North, Magnificent Mile, West Loop, the Loop and Wicker Park, thefts more than doubled year-over-year in January, while carjackings, assaults and battery also saw substantial increases. Together, the neighborhoods saw roughly 1,000 more crimes last year than in the first year of the pandemic. 

Retailers have really been hit hard. There are a few businesses on Madison who have gotten hit more than once,” said Julie Darling, a board member of the West Loop Community Organization and a community adviser for the 12th District with the Chicago police. 

Out in the open

Crimes are increasingly targeting small businesses and taking place out in the open, leaving shoppers and store owners wary, according to the analysis, which examined violent crimes that police reported happening in and around neighborhood streets and stores, as well as offices.

The bottom line is the challenges we face are the challenges every neighborhood faces,” Darling said. “It’s still a bullish market. There’s still development coming in.” 

A similar scene is playing out elsewhere in Chicago and across the country. Gun violence surged last year in New York City. In Atlanta, a rise in murders has the city’s wealthiest neighborhood threatening to secede and form its own municipality. A wave of thefts and more violent crimes in San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods prompted Mayor London Breed in December to pledge to be “more aggressive with law enforcement.”

High-end retailers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a 13-block stretch known for its chic boutiques and restaurants nestled within sleek skyscrapers, have been targeted by smash-and-grab robberies. Mag Mile averaged more than one violent crime per day last year as violent crimes jumped 19 percent in the greater Streeterville neighborhood. 

The incidents didn’t deter Megan O’Carroll and Jennifer Chiao from sharing a lunch on Michigan Avenue across the street from a Burberry store that was robbed twice recently by a robbery ring whose leader police arrested last month, according to news reports.

It’s really luxury stuff that’s getting hit right now,” O’Carroll said. 

High demand

Chiao said she considered renting a vacant spot for a vegan and vegetarian restaurant in the fourth-floor food court in the North Bridge shopping center. She declined to lease it, however, saying that the rent was too steep for her liking, which she said shows high demand for retail space in the city’s high-traffic areas despite consumers’ potential concerns with the pandemic and the rise of more visible, brazen crimes.

You have to find a good location. You know that Michigan Avenue, most of the time, is calm. You don’t see lots of crime,” Chiao said.

Chicago’s retail recovery is caught in a Catch-22. People are returning downtown to shop, but there are still periods when there are few people on the streets, adding to a sense of danger.

Realistically, anyone who lives in Chicago knows they don’t live in the safest city in the country or in the world,” said Greg Gotsis, who moved a few blocks west of the Magnificent Mile last year. “The more people that end up being out and about, the more this [mask] goes away, the more people come out, the more it will steer off criminals.”

Signs have emerged that crowds are returning. Traffic counters in the 400 block of North Michigan Avenue tallied more pedestrians in December than in the same month pre-pandemic, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing the Magnificent Mile Association.

Communities have banded together to address the issue of rising crime as the police department faces a shortage of officers that limits its ability to increase patrols. In Wicker Park, a parking ban after 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday has helped reduce the number of altercations. The police department agreed to create two dedicated patrols for the entertainment district in the near future, according to O’Donnell. They also shut down The Point after a second shooting in February.

Coffee with a cop”

West Loop business owners also requested more patrols, but they were told the police department doesn’t have the personnel, Darling said. Instead, a self-defense class was arranged at a local fitness center and a “coffee with a cop” event was held on a recent Saturday morning.

Police have lined the roads leading into the Mag Mile every night for the months Gotsis has lived there, he said. Although the practice perhaps deters some criminals, it hasn’t prevented a few robberies that have flummoxed retailers and led to difficult questions about the commercial viability of Chicago’s most famous shopping strip.

The Mag Mile is far from dead, but in recent years, major retailers have vacated storefronts, which have since proven tough to fill, and the pandemic added a new challenge.

O’Donnell credited the “tightly knit” community in Wicker Park for bringing their concerns to city officials and winning changes that he hopes will mitigate crime moving forward.

Being able to come together, all that I believe contributed to what we’re doing to move forward,” he said.








      CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the source of data on retail traffic in Chicago. The correct source was Locate.ai.


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