The Esplanade Plan


The intent of this plan is to initiate the process of integrating a portion of the Chicago central business district into a modern enclosed shopping center. The steps outlined in this proposal should dramatically improve the central city, restoring it to its regional preeminence at a minimum of public cost.

It is proposed that the city lease the air rights of selected downtown streets for the construction of a modern enclosed shopping center similar to the lines of a suburban shopping mall. The structure would be built on piers, permitting traffic to flow at grade relatively unimpeded. The second floor would be the primary pedestrian mall, with shops, restaurants, and offices located within the structure itself and in the adjacent building. The third and fourth floor would be more retail and office space. The roof would be the piece de resistance, consisting of a heavily landscaped esplanade and park with park benches, fountains, and performing art pavilions.

The downtown area would, thus, take on the safe and warm aspects of a suburban shopping area. Chicago's climate is unfit for humans for a number of days each year. It is during this time that the interior walkways of the mall would receive the most use. On nice days the roof garden esplanade would become the center of activity.

The logical, initial development of the center would interconnect the major train and mass transit stations in the loop with major office and retail buildings. The choice of roads on which to construct the center is open to debate. The concept could work on a variety of streets.

The impact of this center is dramatic--covered access from commuter train stations, every C.T.A. elevated and subway line, many bus routes, and parking garages. Trips to downtown Chicago would become more pleasant, with less exposure to cold or heat, rain or snow, narrow crowded sidewalks, and high noise and air pollution levels. Workers and shoppers would instead enter a modern, climate, controlled shopping center, with a perception of safety. On pleasant days the pedestrian would choose the rooftop esplanade for out of doors strolling, while the interior mall would be used during inclement weather. The existing, at grade level sidewalk would also be available.

Developers should be eager to extend the esplanade in various directions. Logical additions to the initial center include a parallel esplanade mall on Adams or Jackson Streets interconnecting the LaSalle Street Station, extending northward to Illinois Center and on to the north. The Madison Avenue Mall should be extended west to key redevelopment.


The main Madison Avenue Mall could well become the premier shopping center and office center in the region, making the extension west very desirable. The area is presently old manufacturing and warehouses. The four level mall, extended west in conjunction with offices and residential development contiguous to the mall, could be a major factor in bringing middle income people into the near west side. The Esplanade Mall could conceivably extend for miles as near in communities are developed.


The esplanade should certainly be connected to a new enclosed Chicago Stadium if it can be constructed near downtown. Patrons of the stadium could thus walk from existing mass transit stations and parking areas and keep major expenditures for new public parking to a minimum. The stadium itself could have many uses in addition to sports--it could function for concerts, civic functions, or as an indoor park connected to the esplanade.

The stadium could be made economically feasible by constructing office buildings around the playing field area, and selling or renting them as "Sky Box offices".


The successful development of the mall and the extension west should key a strong demand for residential development contiguous to the mall. A good deal of residential development is currently taking place in certain near north and near south neighborhoods.

This development is vital for the city, bringing needed tax base and middle income residents.

The largest detriments to residential development of downtown and near downtown development include the following:

Fear of Crime
Lack of open space
Discomfort from exposure to elements
Convenient access to modern "suburban" type shopping Cost

The Esplanade Plan mitigates these problems. The interior esplanade mall would reduce the fear of crime and exposure to the elements. The roof top garden and walkways provide a lineal park. Congestion is substantially reduced since pedestrians do not have to compete with cars, and the esplanade structure is itself a shopping center.


Since the mall must preserve the street right of way, the structure must be supported on piers. As the building will be built between existing buildings, it follows that the exterior wall of the existing building may be used to form the interior wall of the mall. This approach would be both economical and aesthetically interesting. A good deal of rebuilding of contiguous buildings will take place on the floors adjacent to the mall--offices adjacent to the second level mall and roof level esplanade will likely be redeveloped into retail outlets to service pedestrian traffic.

Atriums are of course encouraged. The interior of the mall should be varied and interesting, changing in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Open air cafes are encouraged. Diversity of shops is desired. Glass walls would be advisable at street crossings.

A major focal point atrium with a public forum at a major mall crossing should be constructed. This area would become a central meeting point in the loop.

The esplanade parkway on the roof will become the city's promenade on pleasant days. Heavy landscaping and outdoor sculpture is a must. Space for outdoor musical performances is also a requirement.

Since existing right of way within the loop is only 60 feet, the main portion of the mall will be quite narrow. Approximately 20 feet of this space must be devoted to pedestrian circulation space. The actual yield in leasable square feet of space is limited, as shown below for a one mile length of mall.


60 feet - 20 feet * 5280 * 4 = 844,800

The leasable square feet of the mall thus equates to a typical suburban mall with four major department store tenants and a large number of small shops. The actual leasable yield could be substantially increased by building into adjacent buildings. This, of course, is one of the major goals of this plan.

At present, Edmonton, Canada, has the largest indoor shopping center with five millions square feet. This very successful effort mixes standard retail services with recreation and entertainment uses. The esplanade shopping center could easily exceed the Edmonton Center in size by interconnecting with the adjacent buildings.


The esplanade should be constructed by the private sector. It is essentially a quality shopping center with a roof top garden. It will be located in the strongest market in the region, on land that is controlled by the public sector.

The City of Chicago can make the project happen by leasing air rights for a percentage of profit. This would be a powerful inducement to the private sector. The city could also reduce costs by not requiring additional parking for the mall, since most of the patrons will be current loop shoppers and workers.

The esplanade would, of course, be more costly in some ways than a comparable suburban mall. The following table illustrates items that will make the cost of the mall vary from the costs of a comparable suburban mall.


Larger corridor space No land purchase More atrium space No parking lot Esplanade landscaping Minimal Infrastructure Higher security requirements

Pier construction
Street air rights lease.

This table indicates that the esplanade will cost more than a comparable suburban mall. This cost is partially balanced by the fact that the center is located on an extremely well traveled corridor, with a high level of affluence.


In deciding to support the Esplanade Plan, the city must, of course, ensure that the total impact of the facility is positive. The following table illustrates some of the public costs and benefits to the facility


City development 
Increased retail space costs 
Increased sales tax 
Revitalized CBD
Improved downtown vitality
Enhanced convenience
Increased property tax
Shelter from elements
Leader in downtown design
Improved downtown aesthetics
Residential construction stimulus

The benefits of the esplanade are obvious, at least from my admittedly biased perspective.


A serious criticism to the Esplanade Plan is the problem of building the mall adjacent to historically or aesthetically important buildings. A number of partial solutions to this problem have been developed.

The simplest approach is to avoid streets with important structures. Where the mall must pass a historical structure, the mall could be held away from the building or an atrium could be constructed adjacent to the structure. These solutions are not perfect, since the mall would forever change the street aspect of the buildings which it passes.


The impact of the mall would, on the whole, be positive. Pedestrians would be removed from the gasoline fumes of the street to the interior spaces of the mall or to the roof top esplanade. The intensive landscaping of the rooftop esplanade would enhance air quality. Citizens would be exposed to significantly less noise and air pollution and less climactic extremes.

The impact of the street under the mall would be negative. The street would become something like lower Wacker Drive. However, the improved pedestrian environment from train station to offices within the loop may encourage more workers and shoppers to take transit, thus reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.


The esplanade is unlike anything yet built and it involves complex design and approval questions. It will, thus, quite likely prove to be difficult to be built. It would be hard for a city planning department to support such a radical proposal. It would also be difficult for a developer to conceive and support such a development.

Similarly, it is clear that some of the civic action groups that oppose almost any change to Chicago would oppose the Esplanade Plan. Change is difficult and large numbers of groups could be expected to oppose this development.

For this plan to have a chance of success requires support by the City and major developers. The leadership for this project must, of course, come primarily from the private sector developers who would build the development.

The logical developer would be a major shopping center developer with downtown interests. Homart, the shopping center developer subsidiary of Sears, is one logical developer. They have their corporate headquarters on the west side of the loop and their tired flagship store on the east side. They could connect these two structures with the Esplanade Mall.


The impact of this proposal is similar to that of the interior walkway system now developing in many cities, notably Minneapolis and St. Paul. This proposal would be unique, however, because the rooftop esplanade would provide a quality urban park at minimum cost. In addition, use of the entire right of way for a structure makes the mall itself financially attractive. In Minneapolis, the interior connections are primarily bridges connecting buildings at mid block, and are relatively narrow. By using the entire right of way, extremely valuable retail space on one or both sides of the mall can be obtained. The rents from this retail space would fund the construction of the Esplanade Mall.

Downtown Chicago can be far more pleasant, comfortable, and dynamic by turning it into the largest enclosed shopping center in the world. The Esplanade Mall could be a prototype for downtown construction world wide. It should be built.