[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]
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.
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.
In addition to editing Streetsblog Chicago, John writes the transportation column for the Chicago Reader weekly paper. A Chicagoan since 1989, he enjoys exploring the city on foot, bike, bus, and 'L' train.
On Thursday, disadvantaged business enterprises attended a meeting hosted by the Chicago Transit Authority to learn more about the Red Line Extension and the subcontracting opportunities available. The event took place at the CTA’s West Loop headquarters.