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Expanded Outdoor Dining

Giving the pedestrianized Clark Street dining district back to cars this summer would be a very foolish thing to do

Ald. Reilly says the car-free restaurant strip is not coming back this year, but here's why that would be a really bad idea.

The 400 block of North Clark Street during outdoor dining season, and this afternoon, the way it will apparently look for the rest of the year. Which layout looks safer, more environmentally friendly, and more profitable? Photos: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

Update 3/30/24, 10:45 AM: A petition has been launched asking Mayor Johnson, Ald. Reilly and CDOT Commissioner Tom Carney to bring back the car-free Clark Street dining district this summer.

Update 3/28/24, 10:30 AM: This morning Ald. Brendan Reilly's (42nd) tweeted about his letter to the owner of nearby non-Clark tavern Harry Carray's promising not to approve future pedestrianization of Clark. "The street closure was MY IDEA," Reilly posted. "The letter you reference was demanded by Mayor Johnson in a quid pro quo: The Administration wouldn’t allow me to close Clark Street last summer UNLESS I supplied them with that letter."

The 42nd Ward hasn't responded to multiple Streetsblog requests for comment on the issue over the last few days.But after after Ald. Reilly tagged us on Twitter this morning, we invited him to do a recorded interview on the topic. If we hear back, we'll run it as a new post.

Depressingly, it looks like one of the silver linings of COVID-19, the vibrant car-free outdoor dining area on Clark Street in River North, may not happen this year. More on that in a bit, but first some background.

The city's Expanded Outdoor Dining program pedestrianized popular restaurant strips to make room for cafe seating in the street, a strategy that proved hugely successful for making public space safer, more attractive, and more profitable. That was particularly true in the three-block stretch of Clark between Grand Avenue and Kinzie Street.

In 2023 there was also a threat that this street, home to eateries like Beatrix, Ema, Frontera Grill, and RPM Steak, wasn't going to be closed to drivers and entirely opened to pedestrians again during the warmer months. Neighborhood associations baselessly claimed that the street closure was creating major traffic problems. And local alderperson Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he was worried that the Clark closure might be a problem for traffic flow when a temporary Bally's casino opened a few blocks northeast at the Medina Temple building.

Fortunately, last April Reilly held a survey on whether there was general support for bringing back expanded outdoor dining on Clark. 79.7 percent of respondents said they were strongly in favor of making the street car-free, at least during the warmer months, with only 8.8 percent strongly opposed. The alder decided to move forward with giving his blessing to the pedestrian street that year, and so once again summer on those blocks was car-free and care-free.

A pie chart of Reilly's survey.

But today Block Club's Melody Mercado reported that Reilly says the Clark dining street isn't coming back this year. The alder told Block Club, "Last spring, when fighting with the Mayor’s Office to approve outdoor dining on Clark Street (which they initially refused to do), the Mayor’s Office, [Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection] and [the Chicago Department of Transportation would only do so with the stipulation there would be no outdoor dining this year."

Plenty of people were dining in the street on the 430 North block of Clark on a cold autumn night a couple years ago. But here's what that block looked like today. Photos: John Greenfield

However CDOT spokesperson Erica Schroeder told Streetsblog yesterday that businesses on Clark are still free to apply to pedestrianize their blocks, with the street open to people on foot from May 1 to October 31. "Per city ordinance, CDOT reviews all applications for street and curb lane closures and seeks input from multiple other city departments and from the alderman of the impacted ward. So far this year, CDOT has not received any permit applications for expanded outdoor dining on Clark Street in River North."

Once again this year, local community groups weren't particularly warm to the idea of opening Clark to pedestrians. A statement provided to Streetsblog by the River North Residents Association said, "We were not opposed to street closures for outdoor dining, but did have concerns about closures on major arterial roads like Clark Street." It's odd to refer to Clark as an important arterial, since it's about half the width of six-lane La Salle Drive, one block west.

La Salle dwarfs Clark. Image: Google Maps

But restauranteurs on other streets seemed to be jealous of the Clark eateries' success, according to software engineer Ryan McCray, who volunteers for the local Sierra Club chapter on downtown issues. "I had a phone call with one of Reilly's staffers two weeks ago," he told Streetsblog yesterday, declining to publicly state which one. "He said this decision was due to 'other restaurants complaining.'" Obviously the solution to that is creating more car-free streets for the restaurants that want them!

Looking south on the 500 block of North Clark with and without expanded dining. Photos: John Greenfield

"I emailed a bunch of restaurants [on Clark] and one operator told me about all the benefits of last year's closure," McCray added. "They did not want to be quoted but said things that sounded great, like more employees, more income per employee, higher staff morale, and safer Clark Street due to added security that all businesses paid for. You could feel the safety, community, and good energy on the streets."

Here's another interesting wrinkle to the story. After the Block Club article came out this morning, more evidence emerged suggesting that Ald. Reilly may not have been completely truthful with the news outlet about doing his best to fight City departments to save the Clark dining street. You can see that in the letter below, also tweeted out ten minutes earlier this afternoon by Block Club's Mercado.

Whoever is to blame for this decision, one thing's for sure. Swapping a peaceful summer business district, which greatly contributes to the City's coffers, for a bunch of speeding SUV drivers, would be a deeply stupid thing for Chicago do as its leaders claim to be fighting climate change. This is what the former deputy mayor for economic development under ex-Mayor Lori Lightfoot had to say about it.

Here's hoping that forward-thinking Chicagoans raise such an outcry over this foolishness that city officials are forced to bring back the people-friendly pedestrianized business district. And hopefully this good idea will be further expanded elsewhere in River North and citywide.

Read the Block Club article here.

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