Eyes on the Street: Swapping Parking for Customer Seating Is a Smart Move

Colectivo Coffee, 2535 N. Clark. Photo: Michelle Stenzel
Colectivo Coffee, 2535 N. Clark. Photo: Michelle Stenzel

More and more, merchants are beginning to understand that their bottom line depends less on the number of vehicles they can park than the number of customers they can accommodate. As such, we’re seeing a positive trend towards restaurant, coffee shop, and bar owners owners choosing up asphalt for cars to provide seating for patrons. We’ve seen this in several parts of town where curbside parking spaces and loading zones have been swapped for “People Spot” mini parks and cafe seating, such as the nifty new parklet by Intelligentsia Coffee in Logan Square.

I'll take a macchiato over macadam any day. Images: Michelle Stenzel, Google Street View
I’ll take a macchiato at Colectivo over macadam any day. Images: Michelle Stenzel, Google Street View

Streetsblog Chicago reader Michelle Stenzel (who has written her own excellent livable streets blog Bike Walk Lincoln Park) recently reminded Steven Vance and me of another awesome type of repurposing of blacktop: when restauranteurs choose to use their parking lots for seating instead of warehousing automobiles. As you can see from the above before-and-after photos, Colectivo Coffee, 2535 N. Clark, wisely chose to transform an ugly five-car parking lot into a vibrant patio with colorful tables and chairs, lovely planter boxes, and even a fire pit. This makeover doesn’t just boost sales for the cafe; it helps beautify Clark Street.

Pizza > parking at Gino's East. Images: Google Street View.
Pizza > parking at Gino’s East. Images: Google Street View.

This reminded us of some other great parking lot makeovers in Chicago. There’s Gino’s East pizzeria, 2801 N. Lincoln, which transforms an awkward triangular parking lot into outdoor seating during the warm months.

Image: google Street View
Heritage Bikes and Coffee. Image: Google Street View

Just up the street at 2959 N. Lincoln, Heritage Bikes and Coffee also uses their adjacent parking lot space for cafe seating, planters, and bike racks. (They used to have a nice parklet on Lincoln as well, but last year Lakeview’s Special Service Area 27 decided that the curbside mini park should be relocated to a new home on the 3300 block, by Dinkel’s Bakery.)

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 12.04.50 PM
What was once parking for 13 cars at the Golden Angel is now seating for dozens of customers at Lou Malnatti’s. Photos: Google Street View

And when Lou Malnati’s pizzeria recently replaced the Golden Angel diner at 4340 N. Lincoln last year, they replaced the 13-spot parking lot with outdoor seating and additional greenery. (What is it about Lincoln Avenue and pizzerias that encourages parking/seating swaps?)

Have we forgotten any other noteworthy examples of establishments trading parking for patrons? Let us know in the comments section.


  • Carter O’Brien

    The plaza connected to Crown Tap deserves a special mention.

  • Pat

    What was once Etno and is now Broken English (Lincoln/Wrightwood/Sheffield) slowly converted from a parking lot, to a patio, to now of a more open air building.

  • The instant success of the Colectivo Coffee patio spot is testament to amount of unmet demand for this kind of outdoor space is needed on Clark Street, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and all over the city. I was in GIddings Plaza in Lincoln Square a few weeks ago, enjoying the sight of people sitting on the edges eating gelato and watching kids play in the fountain, and again wished that there were more spaces like that all over Chicago (both public and quasi-public). I hope business owners recognize the opportunity and act on it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    btw, I think the answer to “What is it about Lincoln Avenue and pizzerias that encourages parking/seating swaps?” is that 1) pizzerias really just need a space or two for their delivery drivers, and 2) both of these spaces historically had wasted parking and Lincoln Ave in general is a very attractive street in terms of architecture, history and comfortably wide sidewalks. Before it was Gino’s East the Lincoln/Racine location was a Fazzio’s italian beef and before that a Vienna joint called Zipizup. Both catered to walk-ins from the neighborhood and had a lot of take-out business. The old Golden Angel parking lot was deserted or at the very least sorely underutliized the majority of the time. With the Leavitt frontage that location feels secluded from the traffic, and the architect did a fantastic job.

  • Sara
  • Pat

    90 Miles too.

  • Anne A

    I’ve enjoyed that corner patio at 90 Miles for a few years now.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Uncommon Ground on Devon did this maybe 5+ years ago to some of their lot though last time I was there there was still plenty of parking.

  • I think angled streets also create odd-shaped parcels that can be well-used for a seating area. I think both of the 7-Eleven sites on Lincoln at Wrightwood and one block north could both be better used as something else. I’ve never seen more than one or two cars parked in those lots at any given time.

  • Word to the wise: Show up early at 90 Miles with a bottle of wine and while you wait for a table you can enjoy your drink in a special patio the restaurant made just for this purpose.

  • Why’s that?
    Every time I see it, it’s inactive. It would be cool if we didn’t have draconian nanny-state laws about outdoor liquor consumption and Woodard Plaza was an unofficial outdoor patio at Crown Liquors.

  • Jeremy

    It would be great if the parking lot at the SE corner of Sheffield and Diversey was converted for use by the customers of Potbelly, Qdoba, Tortorice’s Pizza, and Lover’s Lane.


  • Carter O’Brien

    Because even as an “inactive” space it serves a needed function as green infrastructure, absorbing stormwater providing native plant habitat and eventually, shade. The plaza provides a place for a stage and crowds to gather by serving as a bookend for street festivals running south on Milwaukee. It also provides a place for the Hairpin Arts Center to do programming (give them time).

    I’m not a huge of privatizing public space, which is what the plaza is, by permanently restricting it to a single usage. Crown has more than adequate space for outdoor seating – if they wanted more, that’s was the wrong place to renovate, the City already pulled a bit of a bait and switch, given that the original plan the community vetted called for outdoor seating that included food, not just drinks.

  • Pat

    Humble Bar on North Ave and Whipple.

  • what_eva

    While the Malnati’s did get rid of the parking in the front, they added new parking in the rear. They purchased two buildings behind the Golden Angel (one on Lincoln, one on Leavitt) and tore them down giving them space for a rear parking lot that has curb cuts on both Lincoln and Leavitt.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hmm, that’s troubling. I think that must’ve been a relatively new development that was done after the restaurant originally opened.

  • what_eva

    Nope, the new lot has been there since they opened. Was always in their plans. It looks a little better having the lot at the back, away from the intersection. It almost feels like an alley lot even though it isn’t.

  • what_eva

    You were pretty close to another one in progress just north of Heritage. Schuba’s has a small parking lot next to Harmony Grill. They’ve torn down the Harmony Grill building (with the exception of the kitchen in the back that is still serving Schuba’s) and are currently building a larger building covering both the Harmony footprint and the parking lot. In the end, this should remove a curb cut.

    That said, the construction crew has the sidewalk closed on Southport and has for weeks. Sometimes there is a sign down at Fletcher to warn peds to cross the street, sometimes not. Oddly they have a small ramp just south of the closure from the street to the sidewalk, apparently for wheelchairs? Would be better if they blocked off part of the street in front of their construction zone.

  • I don’t think the Woodard Plaza should be privatized. I think our outdoor drinking laws should be modernized so that one can buy a beer at Crown and take it outside. Another thing I want is for sidewalk cafés to stop having fences, and to allow BYOB in sidewalk cafés.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Every time I’ve seen that lot it has really only been used by their delivery drivers, they definitely did a nice job of tucking it away.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I couldn’t agree more on the fence issue. I have a feeling that Chicago is never going to modernize the drinking laws in the manner of which you speak, and this intersection is a good illustration of why – it’s the same reason why Metra riders get to drink on their way to Ravinia, while the CTA would never allow it. Public, hardcore, day-and-night drinking alcoholics. This has been an issue across the street from this location in the Fireman’s Park since as long as I’ve lived up the street.

  • what_eva

    there aren’t many spots, maybe 7. From a street view, it looks like a handicapped spot and 3 spots on the lincoln side and 2-3 spots plus dumpsters on the leavitt side. there are signs in front of some of the spots, not sure if they’re “malnati’s only” or “delivery drivers only” spots. Will check next time I’m by there.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Sounds about right to me. Maybe the lesson here is that restaurants that do a significant amount of delivery business have an opportunity to downsize on-site parking.