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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.”

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