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Legal restrictions make it hard to open new 'curbside cafes'

Community leaders say the rules of the ordinance should be relaxed.

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In the summer of 2014, two so-called people spots opened near the intersection of Diversey and Clark in east Lakeview. They were installed in the parking lanes in front of El Nuevo Mexicano restaurant, at 2914 N. Clark, and Osteria de Pizza Metro, 2863 N. Clark, for a total cost of $35,000, in an effort to revitalize a section of the street that suffered from narrow sidewalks and empty storefronts.

These on-the-street seating areas, also known as "parklets," consisted of wooden platforms, tables, and chairs, surrounded by colorful enclosures that enlivened the street. But despite the attractiveness of the people spots, local merchants say neither structure attracted much use.

Passersby assumed they were private sidewalk cafes for the two sit-down eateries. But Chicago's rules governing people spots—established in 2012 to encourage the development of these miniature public spaces—prohibit table service and alcohol consumption, so the seating wasn't much use for restaurant patrons.

A total of eight parklets have been installed across the city, from Andersonville and Lakeview to Kenwood and Grand Boulevard. Those that feature tables and chairs and have been placed next to coffee shops and take-out joints have been popular with customers. Other people spots that don't resemble sidewalk cafes, such as "the Wave," an installation of free-form seating at Addison and Southport, have also inspired plenty of positive loitering.

But since the Lakeview people spots weren't successful, staffers at the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce came up with a solution: push for new legislation that would allow restaurants like El Nuevo Mexicano and Pizza Metro to serve food and booze in private parklets dubbed "curbside cafes."

"I thought this would be a big win for everyone, because it would generate additional sales tax revenue and bring more foot traffic to the strip," says chamber head Maureen Martino.

The people spot in front of El Nuevo Mexicano looked like a sidewalk cafe, but the restaurant couldn't serve food or drinks there. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • The people spot in front of El Nuevo Mexicano looked like a sidewalk cafe, but the restaurant couldn't serve food or drinks there.

In January, the City Council passed the "curbside cafe" ordinance, allowing restaurants and bars with narrow sidewalks to create private seating for customers in the parking lanes in front of their storefronts.

There's just one problem: the new law is so narrowly written that it's almost impossible to find a location that meets its requirements. As a result, that stretch of Clark in Lakeview will probably be the only location to get the blacktop bistros this year.

For starters, the ordinance states that these new curbside cafes can only be installed on the city's officially designated pedestrian streets (aka "P-streets")—business strips where new car-centric development like strip malls and drive-throughs are banned. Moreover, they're only allowed at locations where the sidewalk is less than eight feet wide.

And while the sports-bar-filled stretch of Clark south of Wrigley Field is a P-street with narrow sidewalks, the ordinance bans the parklets within 1,200 feet of the ballfield.

They're also forbidden within Chicago's central business district.

"It's going to be difficult to navigate all those parameters," says 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack. Although he feels curbside cafes could be a boon for retail strips, few locations in Bucktown and Logan Square would qualify.

And even though 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney cosponsored the ordinance, some of his own constituents can't have them. Tunney's chief of staff, Bennett Lawson, says a couple of businesses on Halsted in Boystown contacted his office about doing curbside cafes. But their sidewalks are wider than eight feet.

Cafe seating at the Heritage Bicycles people spot - DSPACE STUDIO
  • dSPACE Studio
  • Cafe seating at the Heritage Bicycles people spot

Many of the sidewalks along Clark Street in Andersonville are between nine- and 11-feet wide, with plenty of street furniture, according to Michael Ashkenasi of the Andersonville Development Corporation. Sidewalk cafes aren't practical at these locations, but the sidewalks are also too wide for curbside cafes.

"Unfortunately, a lot of businesses are stuck between a rock and a hard place," he says.

The law's obstacles aren't just geographical or infrastructure based, either. Due to Chicago's much-despised parking meter contract, when people spots or the new curbside cafes replace metered spaces, the city has to compensate concessionaire LAZ Parking, usually by creating new metered spots elsewhere in the neighborhood. Otherwise, the business using a private parklet must pay for any anticipated lost meter revenue, generally $168 per week per space.

It's ironic, but not too surprising, that just about the only location in the city where it's practical to install curbside cafes is the two-block stretch of Clark that inspired the ordinance. The Lakeview East chamber plans to install curbside cafes in front of El Nuevo Mexicano and the Duke of Perth, a Scottish tavern at 2913 N. Clark.

"I could absolutely see people sitting out there with a couple of pints and watching the world go by."

—Duke of Perth owner Colin Cameron­


Since the curbside cafes can't be longer than their adjacent storefronts, the chamber will divide its two large people spots in half, yielding four smaller parklets. Two of these will be placed in front of the restaurant and the bar as curbside cafes, reserved for customers.

The other two will be installed by the former Osteria de Pizza Metro storefront—the restaurant closed last year, but the chamber expects the space to be rented soon—and Gabby's Barber Shop, at 2860 N. Clark. Both will be people spots open to the general public.

"The Wave" people spot at Addison and Southport - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • "The Wave" people spot at Addison and Southport

The curbside cafes will be something of a bargain for El Nuevo and Duke of Perth. Each business will pay a $600 annual permit fee, but the chamber will provide the infrastructure and maintenance at no charge. Typically parklets cost between between $15,000 and $75,000, plus a few thousand dollars a year for installation, removal, and winter storage.

The handful of parking spaces removed from Clark Street will be replaced by metered spots on nearby streets.

Duke of Perth owner Colin Cameron says the chamber approached him about piloting a curbside cafe in front of his bar, even though he already has a back patio.

"I've been kind of on the fence about the whole thing," he said with a rich Scottish burr, still intact after almost three decades living in the U.S. "But I'm coming onboard with it."

"If nothing else, it will certainly increase the street presence and make this area of Clark a little more lively," he added. "I could absolutely see people sitting out there with a couple of pints and watching the world go by."

Waguespack and Ashkenasi say the curbside cafe ordinance should be overhauled so that more retail districts can reap these benefits. "They should relax [the sidewalk width requirement], or do away with that rule altogether," Ashkenasi says.

And since the private parklets are only allowed from May through September, to ensure they're not a barrier to snow plowing, Ashkenasi argues they shouldn't require the same $600 permit as sidewalk cafes, which can be in place from March through November.

Tunney's chief of staff, Lawson, argues that because the new law is an experiment, the current restrictions make sense. He says curbside cafes are especially appropriate for P-streets because the city wants to encourage pedestrian activity on those corridors. And that the eight-foot rule was included because "we wanted to limit the scope of the pilot."

The people behind the new law seem to have gotten their wish. Since it looks like the only curbside cafes going in this year will be the ones in Lakeview, hopefully those parklets will be flush with patrons. That would help build demand for rewriting the ordinance so that more business strips can reap its benefits. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.


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