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Expanded Outdoor Dining

No longer car-free, the new Clark Extended Outdoor Dining district is a lot less appetizing

Local alder Brendan Reilly (42nd) encourages fans of the former pedestrianized restaurant zone to bend Mayor Johnson's ear on the issue.

Some of the venues did their best to brighten up their curbside seating areas with greenery, but they’re still islands in a sea of cars. Looking north near Grand and Clark. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by The Bike Lane.

Update Monday, June 3, 12:15 PM: Last Friday's 42nd Ward newsletter stated, in part, "the alderman is disappointed Mayor Johnson chose to end the very popular full closure and pedestrianization of Clark Street."

"Would you like your chilaquiles with or without traffic danger, congestion, noise, and smog?"

Unfortunately, nowadays if you're having a meal outside at the previously car-free Clark Street Extended Outdoor Dining district, the former is the only thing on the menu.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of fine eating and drinking establishments on this section of Clark (100 W.), between Grand Avenue (530 N.) and Kinzie Street (400 N.) in River North. And I'm sure it's still very possible to have a good time hanging out alfresco there.

The Extended Outdoor Dining area on Clark with pedestrianization in the past, and with cars today. Photos: John Greenfield

But it definitely takes a feather out of Chicago's cap as a forward-thinking global city that we've just gotten rid one of the city's most beloved and financially successful pedestrianized streets.

Streetsblog Chicago readers are well familiar with the drama over whether or not the car-free Clark EOD would come back this year. As you'd guess, pedestrianization has been wildly popular with the local restaurant and bar owners and staff.

But local alderperson Brendan Reilly (42nd) also said police reported that the car-free zone helped reduce crime. And the City Council member surveyed 3,000 constituents about the Clark EOD in April 2023 and found 87 percent of respondents were somewhat or strongly in favor of keeping this stretch car-free during the warmer months.

A pie chart of Reilly's survey.

Unfortunately, restaurateurs on other streets, a trade union, and neighborhood associations lobbied Mayor Brandon Johnson to not allow permits to be issued for pedestrianization this year. Among other complaints, the opponents made the absurd argument that a car-free Clark created public safety problems. That's particularly ironic in a neighborhood where traffic crashes are depressingly common.

To his credit, Ald. Reilly made plenty of noise about the EOD controversy this spring, including an in-depth interview with Streetsblog. But ultimately Mayor Johnson caved in to the "Not In My Back Yard" folks, with his team announcing on May 15 that Clark wouldn't be pedestrianized.

The Mayor's Office stated, "The Chicago Department of Transportation issued a permit allowing curb lane closures along Clark Street between Grand Avenue and Kinzie Street that allows food establishments the opportunity to extend their dining areas into the sidewalk and parking lane, also known as the curb lane, without fully closing Clark Street to vehicle traffic."

Johnson's office concluded, "The format will give participating restaurants extra capacity and create an inviting outdoor space for dining, while taking into account the need for accessibility and traffic flow in the River North community."

It's hard to believe that opening three blocks of three-lane, southbound-only Clark to people on foot and bicycles, with the cross streets still available to drivers, caused major "accessibility and traffic flow" problems. After all, two-way La Salle Street (130 W.) a block west, has twice as many lanes.

La Salle dwarfs Clark. Image: Google Maps

Needless to say, Ald. Reilly is not pleased with the final outcome. He says that two weeks before the May 15 announcement from the Mayor's Office, City officials told him that after the downtown NASCAR race takes place, full pedestrianization of Clark would be permitted from mid-July until October 1.

"That seemed a fair compromise to me," he recently told Streetsblog. However, ultimately "The Mayor’s Office made the decision to nix the full [pedestrianization] of Clark Street for the second half of the season. It’s a very frustrating result and I suspect traffic conditions will only be worsened by the curb lane closures. But, something is better than nothing... I suppose.''

Sure, the current state of Clark beats getting hit in the head with a torta. But here's what it used to be like dining outside at Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark Street, back when Clark was car-free:

Photo: John Greenfield

And here's what it's like now:

It's not absolutely godawful, but certainly not ideal, right?

So is there anything car-free Clark fans can do to reverse the mayor's shortsighted ruling? Ald. Reilly says, "At this point, the only way to turn this decision around is for the public to contact the mayor via email, phone, or petition and let his office know just how much they prefer the pedestrianization of Clark Street during the summer."

So have at it, Streetsblog readers.

Here's one more interesting factoid about the current set-up. Obviously, the southbound CTA #22 Clark bus was rerouted while the street was pedestrianized. But despite the fact that the roadway is now closed to people on foot during the warmer months, the bus line is still being redirected so that restaurants and bars can use the Clark bus stops for on-street seating. Thanks to a reader for pointing this out.

An outdoor seating area occupies the #22 Clark bus stop at the northwest corner of Kinzie/Clark, looking south. Photo: John Greenfield

"This portion of the #22 Clark bus is temporarily rerouted until October 31," a CTA spokesperson recently told Streetsblog. "Southbound buses will operate via Clark, Grand, La Salle, and [Wacker Drive (300 N.)], then resume their normal route on Clark. Northbound buses are not affected. Customers can find more information here on our website."

So again, despite Clark currently being car-clogged, don't hesitate to have a good time dining and drinking there. But if sustainable transportation advocates and foodies can convince Mayor Johnson to reverse his decision, that would be the icing on the cake.

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