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Expanded Outdoor Dining

Tasty news: Friedman Properties is trying to break the Clark outdoor dining stalemate by applying for street closure permits

Mayor Johnson's administration and Ald. Reilly haven't yet found common ground on bringing back the popular car-free zone. Will this make the difference?

Car-free Clark Street in August 2022. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

By now Streetsblog readers are well aware of the Clark Street kerfuffle. In a nutshell, a car-free Expanded Outdoor Dining district was created during the COVID-19 pandemic on the three-block stretch of Clark between Grand Avenue and Kinzie Street in River North. It made the public space safer, more environmentally friendly, and more profitable, and a 2023 survey conducted by local alderperson Brendan Reilly showed the pedestrian-friendly zone was very popular with residents.

A pie chart of Ald. Reilly's survey asking residents how the felt about the Clark Street EOD.

Unfortunately, local neighborhood associations, the owners of some restaurants on other streets that didn't reap the benefits, and the Chicago Federation of Labor opposed the Clark dining district. They claimed it was creating traffic headaches and slowing down first responders, and lobbied Mayor Brandon Johnson to abolish it this year.

Last month Ald. Reilly told Block Club Chicago that the car-free corridor isn't coming back this summer. He put the blame squarely on the mayor, who hasn't commented publicly on this issue yet.

At the time, the Chicago Department of Transportation, which helps oversees the EOD program, indicated that a car-free Clark could still happen, at least theoretically. "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," department spokesperson Erica Schroeder told Streetsblog on March 27. "So far this year, CDOT has not received any permit applications for expanded outdoor dining on Clark Street in River North."

And in a two-part interview with Streetsblog on March 29, Ald. Reilly promised he would give the dining district his blessing again this year if given that option, but said the ball is the Mayor Johnson's court. "It's up to the mayor on the approval. The [alderpersons] don't issue the permit, [the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection] and CDOT does. But I've always supported this program. I think it's a fantastic program."

Looking south on the 500 block of North Clark with expanded dining. Photo: John Greenfield

Ald. Reilly added there was a glimmer of hope that car-free Clark might happen after all. "There is some talk. The business owners on Clark Street are weighing their options right now and are considering submitting an application for the Clark closure, and I guess that would be the ultimate test of whether or not the Johnson administration is willing to change their mind on this."

And submit an application they did, Clark Street advocate Ryan McCray told Streetsblog this afternoon. He's a software engineer who's been organizing around the EOD issue with Strong Towns Chicago, the local chapter of an organization trying to to make American cities more walkable, livable, and financially resilient. He's working on the Clark project with Aaron Feldman, Carlyn Yang, and Henry Firth. More than 3,200 people have signed their petition asking Mayor Johnson, Ald. Reilly, and CDOT to bring back the people-friendly streetscape.

"Strong Towns found that the Clark street outdoor dining permit [applications] have been filed," McCray wrote. He shared a screenshot from the Chicago Data Portal showing that Friedman Properties, a commercial real estate company that owns land along Clark, has submitted three applications from May through October. (Interestingly, two of the permits would last until Halloween, but the third would only last until October 1.

Screenshot of three 2024 permit applications. Click here for a larger version.

McCray wasn't sure which eating and drinking establishments Friedman is representing this year. But he said, based on last year's permits, it looks like the 2024 applications are for Beatrix, Bub City, and Boss Bar.

Asked for more info, transit department spokesperson Erica Schroeder simply replied, "Yes, CDOT received the application and it is currently under review, as outlined in Section 10-28-593 of the Outdoor Dining Ordinance."

Streetsblog asked the 42nd Ward for Ald. Reilly's reaction to the news. "We look forward to CDOT conducting their review; sharing their potential revisions; and feedback regarding the application, including the proposed footprint and duration of the program," he said in a statement.

"I hope Ald. Reilly continues to be loud with his support for this program and keeps us updated," McCray said. "I'm surprised we didn't hear from him that the permits had been filed. I also hope Mayor Johnson comes out to support these permits given that he introduced the ordinance for the long-term Expanded Outdoor Dining program [in May 2023]."

"I don't like that this process had so much drama involved," McCray added. "These permits make our community safer, richer, and more fun. What else matters?"

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