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This article appeared in WWD Chicago, a special regional publication of WWD available to subscribers.

The Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods offer a hip alternative for Chicago retailers.

Stefani Greenfield, the founder of Scoop, gazed down streets lined with thriving independent boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants in the Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods and saw visions of lower Manhattan’s ever-so-trendy Meatpacking District.

Greenfield, who has built an empire of eight stores in six cities, is doing more than entertaining visions. She has picked the eclectic district on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side as the location of Scoop’s first superstore, in a 9,800-square-foot former furniture outlet on Milwaukee Avenue, next to a strip mall with a Subway sandwich shop and a Blockbuster. The store, featuring a cafe along with women’s, men’s and children’s designer apparel, is to open March 24.

“We don’t like to go in the same direction as everyone,” Greenfield said. The neighborhood is “a little groovier, a little more maverick.”

Greenfield isn’t alone in her infatuation with Bucktown/Wicker Park, a roughly 1.5-square-mile district with a reputation as a hip, artsy alternative to downtown’s staid Michigan Avenue. American Apparel opened along Milwaukee Avenue, which cuts through the heart of the area, more than a year ago, the first national chain to venture into the neighborhood. Dutch denim line G-Star unveiled its first Chicago store on the same street last year, and Urban Outfitters is to open a 10,600-square-foot location on Milwaukee Avenue this month.

Real estate brokers and retail analysts view the area, and Milwaukee Avenue in particular, as the city’s newest hot property, predicting more national names will follow Scoop’s lead.

“It’s got a newness, a hipness and a youth demographic, which is not the case in some of the other areas,” said Keven Wilder, a Chicago retail consultant. “It’s maybe equivalent to the way [Manhattan’s] SoHo used to be. It’s still largely undiscovered. It’s not yesterday’s news.”

However, the changing climate is not for everyone. The retailers “have to fit the niche,” Wilder said. “It’s a funkier area, which is part of its charm.”

Bucktown/Wicker Park hit the radar in the Nineties as a hangout for local rockers Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins, and some pegged it as the next alternative-music mecca. Although that prediction didn’t prove accurate, Damen Avenue began to blossom with see-and-be-seen restaurants and bars, as well as women’s retailers. In 1997, trendsetting p.45 opened, the first of about 15 women’s specialty stores on Damen, north of Milwaukee Avenue.

As Bucktown/Wicker Park became gentrified, however, change was inevitable. It has not been universally welcomed by residents, or independent retailers who want to maintain the area’s character. During the taping of MTV’s “Real World” series here in 2001, there were protests that the area’s first Starbucks would dampen the neighborhood’s alternative, independent vibe.

About 52,000 people, with a median income of $60,000, live in Bucktown/Wicker Park, which began as a farming community in the mid-1800s, said Paula Barrington, executive director for the local chamber of commerce. The area later evolved into a residential and manufacturing district mostly settled by German and Polish immigrants.

Residential construction got a jump-start in the last half-dozen years or so, and many residents and artists got priced out of the neighborhood. New condos average $420,000; town homes, $509,000, and single-family homes, $1 million, Barrington said.

Retail space, however, which is most abundant along Milwaukee Avenue, remains affordable, considering prices in some of the city’s most desirable locations. Many national retailers are first attracted to Michigan Avenue, where rents run $250 to $300 per square foot, said Lorraine Adney, a broker with Baum Realty who helped broker the Scoop deal. They also consider Lincoln Park’s Armitage Avenue or Halsted Street, where rents average $60 to $70 per square foot. In Bucktown/Wicker Park, rents recently hit $30 to $40, representing a 40 percent increase from about 3 1/2 years ago.

Commercial and residential development aside, Greenfield said the mix of punk postgraduates, artists, advertising execs and latte-sipping urban moms wearing designer denim and pushing Bugaboo strollers is an alluring “creative community … I liked the whole vibe. It was laid-back with an edge. There was such a fashion direction there, but not in your face.”

Some New York and national retailers have a narrow view of Chicago, thinking only of Michigan Avenue and upscale Oak Street, which houses Hermès, Prada, Kate Spade and Graff jewelers. “It’s been our challenge to show that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods,” Adney said. “Our neighborhood retail is exciting, just like New York’s neighborhood retail is exciting.”

Noting the shift in Bucktown/Wicker Park, she said, “I see a pretty high growth on Milwaukee,” which houses a number of discount shops mixed with more upscale retail and restaurants and beauty salons. “It is 100 percent commercial ground level. We definitely see a bit of a changing of the guard. There’s an awful lot of space that has been there a long time.”

Scoop’s launch of its superstore concept is likely to boost the neighborhood’s profile, credibility and desirability.

“It’s all about adjacency,” Wilder said. “Retailers like to be with other retailers.”

Property owners, mindful of Milwaukee Avenue’s popularity, are selling buildings and leasing space, Adney said, which may range in size from 1,500 to 5,600 square feet on the ground level.

After Scoop announced its intentions last summer, there was speculation that Banana Republic, J.Crew and Gap were scouting the neighborhood. Although the speculation was unfounded, local independent retailers were concerned.

The neighborhood “is just not that welcoming for that kind of store,” said Stephanie Sack, owner of Vive la Femme, a four-year-old plus-size boutique on Damen Avenue. “This is one of the last bastions untouched by companies of that size, and I’m proud of that. It’s a creative haven for entrepreneurs.”

Sack is one of several specialty store owners who want to preserve the existing dynamic. “There’s a feel of pioneerism, a palpable aura of excitement and what’s new,” she said.

Debbie Sharpe, who has run restaurants and other food businesses in Bucktown/Wicker Park for more than 12 years, said that spirit is part of the attraction. “Suburban people think they’re coming here for an adventure,” she said.

That edge isn’t without its price. Laura Haberman, who opened her 1,600-square-foot boutique, Jade, on Milwaukee Avenue last May, said her windows have been tagged so many times, she installed antigraffiti film on the glass.

“It’s an ongoing issue,” she said of the graffiti; part of her wood storefront was marred with blue paint. “That’s been a nightmare.”

Otherwise, “I’m in love with the location,” said Haberman, who has seen a wine cafe and tobacco lounge open on either side of her store, which specializes in bohemian designer looks with such lines as M Missoni, Olga Kapustina and Nieves Lavi. “I like the grittiness.”

Although she can’t keep her doors open in the summer — “It’s too loud and there’s too much dirt” — sales are better than expected, and a strong portion of business comes from the neighborhood and out-of-towners.

“They’re looking at Wicker Park and Bucktown as a day location,” she said. “All it takes is one time for them to come here and have a good time and then they’ll come back.”

Still, some national retailers remain cautious. When she takes retailers on neighborhood tours, “The reaction is 100 percent mixed,” Adney said. “Other brands are waking up and taking a look at it. But there are retailers who, for better or worse, think this is the Midwest, and they’re worried about the Midwest. They want to be safe on Michigan Avenue or Oak Street. They want to see the familiar names.”

Greenfield wasn’t “afraid to go into a market that wasn’t well established with national retailers,” Adney said.

Chicago’s retail climate, meanwhile, is vibrant. “The market here is very, very active,” Adney said. “There definitely is a feeling of optimism. I have retailers looking for space, but we don’t always have it, particularly for smaller retailers.

“Some are bound and determined to be on Michigan Avenue,” she said. “They’ll be sitting and looking for another year before anything opens up.”

That’s just fine with Haberman. “Urban Outfitters and Scoop are really as big as we’d want,” she said. “We really don’t want to see Ann Taylor or Banana Republic. We all feel very protective of what we’ve done and we don’t want to see that undermined.”

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