Silver Palm Owner Scapegoats Protected Lanes for Restaurant’s Failure

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The Matchbox bar and Silver Palm restaurant, viewed from Ogden. Photo: Kathi Gormley

As part of Chicago’s pantheon of curmudgeonly, bike-baiting opinion writers, an elite group that includes Tribune columnist John Kass and guest contributor John McCarron, DNAinfo’s Mark Konkol is a bit of an odd duck. After writing a series of rants against the Kinzie protected bike lanes for the Sun-Times, his former employer, Konkol seems to have softened his position on cycling a bit.

On Friday, he actually posted a well-intentioned guide to avoiding dooring on the DNA website, although he expresses his “disdain for Chicago’s rogue bicycle culture” in the same piece. That article consists of largely irrelevant tips from the Illinois Secretary of State’s traffic safety manager Kathleen Widmer. Her advice to cyclists includes exhortations to wear a helmet, not use headphones, and stop at red lights and stop signs, all things that have little or nothing to do with preventing doorings.

Widmer admonished bike riders to be especially cautious when riding in “protective” bike lanes. That’s an ironic thing to say in a discussion of doorings, since protected lanes, which feature a wide striped buffer between the parking lane and cyclists, greatly reduce the chance of these kind of crashes. She also left out the most important tip for cyclists: whenever possible, stay out of the “door zone” by riding three or four feet away from parked cars.

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A driver gets out of her car on Milwaukee in Wicker Park. Photo: Steven Vance

Annoyingly, her sole advice to drivers for preventing doorings was “look out for bikes when they’re parked on streets crowded with bike riders.” Obviously, motorists should always check for bicycles and other vehicles before opening their doors, regardless of the location.

In addition to throwing a bone to the bikers, last week Konkol returned to his crusade against protected bike lanes. In a column about the Silver Palm restaurant, Milwaukee and Ogden, shutting down for the winter, the writer gave airtime to owner David Gercerver, who blames the closure on a slump in business due to new bike infrastructure on Milwaukee.

“Ultimately, The Silver Palm was done in by the well-meaning pursuit of a more bike-friendly city,” Konkol writes. “Specifically, the installation of protected bike lanes and a Divvy bike station on Milwaukee Avenue — combined with road construction — gobbled up so much parking that customers stayed away, [the owner] said. ‘The loss of 15 parking places in one block took its toll,’ David Gervercer wrote in an email.”

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The Matchbox patio is a great place to bike watch. Photo by John Greenfield

It’s sad that the proprietor of a transportation-themed eatery (the retro restaurant is housed in a vintage railcar) is blaming bike infrastructure for his business woes. I’m a big fan of the the Matchbox, the railcar-thin cocktail bar attached to the restaurant, whose summer patio is an excellent place to kick back with a mojito and enjoy the constant stream of of bike traffic on Milwaukee.

It’s likely the current water main project on this stretch, slated to end next month, is hurting local businesses, but let’s take a look at Gervercer’s complaint. There were no parking impacts on Ogden from the bike lanes, but Chicago Department of Transportation bikeways project manager Mike Amsden confirmed that the block of Milwaukee between Ogden and Carpenter had a net loss of 15 parking spaces due to the PBLs. After the water work is done, CDOT plans to add 14 free spots nearby on Erie west of Milwaukee by implementing diagonal parking but, granted, that will be several months after the existing spaces were removed.

As for the Divvy station at Carpenter and Milwaukee, it’s located on the sidewalk, so it had no impact on car parking. And, of course, a docking station represents 15 or more new bike parking spaces. My stakeout of a bike-share station in nearby Wicker Park this summer showed that it was bringing far more foot traffic to the business strip than adjacent car spaces.

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A bicyclist on Milwaukee approaches the Silver Palm. Photo: Steven Vance

CDOT also installed a ten-space on-street bike parking corral just south of the Silver Palm this summer. In addition, the restaurant is located across the street from the Blue Line’s Chicago stop, and it’s steps from bus stops for the Milwaukee and Chicago routes. Needless to say, there are a multitude of convenient ways to get to the Silver Palm besides driving.

“I couldn’t help but wonder why such a cool restaurant… with such great food on a busy street next to a great bar and easy access to public transportation had to take a break,” Konkol notes. Despite the parking conversions, it’s unlikely the protected bike lanes are the culprit. Studies show that, rather than hurt commerce, PBLs boost business. For example, retail sales increased by 49 percent after protected lanes were installed on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue. A survey of retail properties on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan found 100 percent occupancy 18 months after the installation of a protected bike lane.

Konkol is especially heartbroken that he won’t be able to enjoy the restaurant’s Three Little Pigs sandwich for a few months. It was lauded by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as the best sandwich in the nation in 2008. However, there’s a telling sentence in the article that may explain the real reason the eatery is closing for the season: “Frankly, Bourdain’s love of that pork celebration on a bun single-handedly saved The Silver Palm from shutting down five years ago, said … Gervercer, who now lives in Mexico.”

Streetsblog Chicago will not be publishing again until Monday. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  • Ugh

    Really? They think some street parking spaces are the culprit? There are myriad reasons why this place could be closing for a few months and they focus on one untested idea. That’s their prerogative, but without numbers to back it up, this is a poor writing piece I’ve come to expect from DNA.

  • HJ

    High visibility location, direct access to two major bus routes, direct access to the Blue line, a Divvy station… and the business still failed? Im sorry, but if all of those enormous advantages can’t offset the temporary loss of 15 public parking spaces in the vicinity of your restaurant, you were doomed to failure.

  • Eli N

    The only time I’ve eaten at the Silver Palm I rode my bike there (via the protected bike lane). I guess in the future I’ll know not to go where I’m not wanted.

  • Melissa

    I never hear that much about The Silver Palm. There are a lot of bars and restaurants not very far away that are packed and often impossible to get seats at. My impression is that it just didn’t keep up with the dining or cocktail scene. It’s a hard sell to the blue line crowd when The Violet Hour, The Dawson, Paramount Room, etc. are just a stop or two away.

  • Perhaps the car fumes masked the true flavors? Perhaps the sweat of those thousands of bikers rolling by overwhelmed the customers? Perhaps the owner is finding out you can’t run a restaurant via Skype? If the food is really good people will go to great lenghts to visit—and park blocks away. Perhaps Mr. Gervercer should go have a look at Hot Doug’s…

    BTW—that water main project has made that part of my commute more unpleasant than it ever was before… So they’re really going to finish that in freezing weather?

  • Matt F

    truth is, if I can’t park my car in the immediate 15 spots of any restaurant, I just don’t go there…

  • David Altenburg

    Enjoy your Applebees!

  • JacobEPeters

    This is sad to hear, since I have gone there three times since the protected bike lanes were installed, and even had a great discussion with a bike cop at the bar one night. I arrived by bike all three times, does that mean he doesn’t appreciate my service? Either way, a grouchy owner won’t stop me from enjoying great food and good company whenever they choose to reopen, but I can guarantee I will never arrive there looking for a parking spot.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I totally buy this argument. I mean, look at how the loss of 15 spaces devastated business at The Matchbox half of Silver Palm!!! /sarcasm

  • lindsaybanks

    I find this hard to believe since the last time I ate at Silver Palm, I got food poisoning from the Rutherford salad. Time before that, we took my brother and his wife. They didn’t like the food.

    and if you check out their yelp reviews, there are a lot of unsatisfied customers…and not ONE of them mentions parking! matchbox, on the other hand…still wonderful.

    And if you want really good food, head down the street to Paramount Room. And they have that bike fix it stand (but no presta valves for air pump – byo)!

  • lindsaybanks

    And this is why we need to use demand – based prices for parking. Some people want to drive, don’t want to walk, and I think they should be able to pay for that luxury. If we didnt have the parking meter deal, we could use the money to make transit improvements like they’re doing in San Francisco.

    Now if you ALSO won’t pay for parking, then yes, Applebee’s it is!

  • One thing I realized after writing this is that it makes tons of economic sense for the Silver Palm to close during the winter regardless of the parking. From what I gathered, the restaurant itself isn’t that popular. The majority of Silver Palm food sales seem to made to people drinking in the Matchbox’s large sidewalk seating area during the warm months. Since the bar itself is tiny, and I’ve never seen anyone eating in it, Silver Palm food revenue must have dropped off dramatically every winter, way before the parking spots were converted.

  • ridonrides

    Yeah tell that to Belly Shack and Big Star which NEVER has parking btw. They are pretty darn successful and close to train stations (Belly Shack is right underneath Blue Line stop).

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