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Ald. Reilly: 3-block stretch of Clark in River North once again going car-free for dining, albeit not on a permanent basis

The 42nd Ward alder announced that Clark will once more be pedestrianized to make more room for outdoor dining, likely this week but, contrary to an earlier proposal, it won't be done on a full time basis.

Pedestrianized Clark Street in River North. Photo: John Greenfield

Thanks to SBC's Steven Vance for a heads-up on this issue.

As Streetsblog discussed last November, one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic was that indoor dining bans forced Chicago officials to experiment with something they should have been doing anyway. An Expanded Outdoor Dining program pedestrianized popular restaurant strips to make room for cafe seating in the street, a strategy that proved hugely successful.

Sadly, many of these well-used car-free dining districts were eliminated as society reopened from the pandemic. That was largely due to the mistaken belief that providing space for moving and parking cars is a more important use of right-of-way than making room for people.

One of the most popular of the pedestrianized outdoor dining areas was the three-block stretch of Clark Street between Grand Avenue and Kinzie Street in River North in the 42nd Ward. It's home to restaurants like Beatrix, Ema, Frontera Grill, and RPM Steak.

Heat lamps and tents helped extend the outdoor dining season on Clark. Photo: John Greenfield

Back in November, then-mayor Lori Lightfood's administration proposed making the vibrant, car-free Clark district a done deal every year between May 1 and Halloween, with no need for annual City Council approval.

The influential Streeterville Organization of Active Residents opposed the measure, baselessly claiming that the street closure was creating major traffic problems. Local alderperson Brendan Reilly argued that making the Clark closure automatic could be a problem for traffic flow when a temporary casino opens a few blocks northeast at the Medina Temple building in the future. Neighboring alder Brian Hopkins (2nd) said that the plan would undermine "aldermanic prerogative," the de-facto power of Council members to veto initiatives in their districts.

On April 12 of this year, Reilly held a survey on whether there was general support for pedestrianizing Clark between Grand and Kedzie for outdoor dining. 79.7 percent of respondents said they are strongly in favor of making the street car-free, at least during the warmer months, with a mere 8.8 percent strongly opposed.

A pie chart of Reilly's survey.

"Given the overwhelming positive feedback, Alderman Reilly is currently working with the necessary city departments to determine the duration and scope of the street closure, and the future of the Expanded Outdoor Dining program on Clark Street," 42nd Ward staff said in Reilly's newsletter on April 28.

On May 26, 11 days after new mayor Brandon Johnson had taken office, the newsletter stated that Reilly co-sponsored Johnson’s ordinance to establish a new version of the Expanded Outdoor Dining program, which expired at the end of last year. The proposed ordinance would create a longterm EOD program, which would issue permits for restaurants and bars to use road space for dining and drinking on an annual basis, but not permanently. On May 31 the City Council unanimously passed the measure.

The car-free portion of Clark north of Kinzie Street last year. Photo: John Greenfield

Last Friday, Reilly's newsletter announced that, thanks to the survey findings and the new EOD program, pedestrianized Clark Street would be coming back, "likely" this week. "This is not permanent," the announcement emphasized. "Once issued, the [venue's] permit will expire on October 31, 2023, and not be automatically renewed next year."

As has been the case the past few years, the Clark pedestrianization will include a 12-foot pathway of clear space on Clark for pedestrians and bike riders to use, and drivers on cross streets will not be impacted.

A 42nd Ward staffer told Streetsblog today that Clark has not yet been pedestrianized this week, but it should be soon.

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