Chicago restaurants want street patios forever

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“It’s like having a second restaurant,” said Noe Bautista, general manager of Havana at River North. The Cuban Restaurant sits on a section of Clark Street closed to traffic to allow restaurants to set up outdoor terraces on the street during warmer months. Havana has grown from a small, five-table sidewalk patio before the pandemic to a 22-table street patio that seats almost as much as its indoor accommodations.

The Havana Patio contributes 40% of the restaurant’s annual sales, Bautista said. If the city passes the ordinance — which could happen no sooner than October — Noe said he plans to invest in the patio, buying better furniture and decor.

The city’s outdoor dining program was established at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when indoor dining was banned. The city expanded the program to include bars and taverns and extended it several times.

Of course, not everyone was happy. Some restaurants that couldn’t participate have complained, and some street closures have caused traffic concerns.

If the city council passes the ordinance, dining establishments will need to apply for an outdoor restaurant street permit through the Chicago Department of Transportation. Permits would be valid from May 1 to October 31. The ordinance would also allow restaurants to put tables in curb lanes, where cars usually park, if the adjacent sidewalk isn’t wide enough.

The curb lane portion of the ordinance could face backlash from nearby retailers over the loss of parking. But the rule could also draw new restaurant attendees to neighborhoods like Little Village, where the sidewalks are narrow, said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. About 500 to 700 restaurants have participated in the program so far, and Toia expects a few hundred more to join if it becomes permanent. Some waited, not knowing when the program would end or if it was worth it. Others might be attracted by the addition of a curb lane.

“People didn’t want to invest money if they thought they couldn’t get enough tables. If I get the sidewalk and get another four or five tables, now it’s economically feasible” , did he declare. “It’s all about results. »

Some neighborhoods have closed roads to allow restaurant terraces to take over, such as Clark Street in River North. Rogers Park, Chatham, Gold Coast and Lakeview have taken similar action. If Lightfoot’s proposal passes, full street closures would be allowed for groups of three or more businesses.

Lakeview was one of the first neighborhoods to pilot a street closure for restaurants in 2020, said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce. Once a month, the chamber closes three blocks of Broadway from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, and about twenty restaurants set up terraces on the street.

It’s not a transparent event to organize, Martino said. The chamber pays around $3,000 to hire security guards, traffic aides, janitors and more. He paid double when he held the event twice a month. But she said the economic impact is undeniable. According to a survey the chamber conducted last year when it hosted the twice-monthly event, “it was close to a million dollars in the restaurant’s pockets,” she said.

Having a street full of restaurant patios does more than just generate additional revenue, said Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo on Clark Street. It gives a certain tone to a neighborhood.

“People want to stay somewhere where they feel like they can just leave their hotel and go out to the streets and it’s like a party,” he said.

Bayless operates a restaurant in New York on a street that is closed for dinner parties. He said his restaurant was able to build permanent structures for customers to hang out and play games there. It’s a way for cities to proactively keep business downtown.

“For Chicago to really compete with other cities in the future, we have to,” he said. “It’s not just about having extra seats, it’s about creating a community.”

Aldus. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said the outdoor dining program on Clark Street was “incredibly popular”.
“It had a real calming and soothing effect on the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s allowed more table capacity for customers, which means more revenue for owners, but it’s also helped keep a few thousand staff employed during the pandemic.”

Reilly generally supports the program’s expansion, but warned “the devil is in the details” and said any effort to remove the local alderman from the process of approving necessary permits would cause a riot in city council.

The order requires the Commissioner of the Department for Transport to send approved applications to the local alderman for review for up to 60 days. If the commissioner and alderman agree on the application, the permit can go ahead. If the commissioner is in favour, but the aldermen oppose, the applicant would be required to seek the approval of the full council – a difficult feat in a body that traditionally defers to the wishes of its colleagues in his quarters.

Justin Laurence contributed.

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