Like a bad meal already eaten and paid for, there is no way for Chicago restaurants to recoup outdoor dining business lost during this glorious stretch of warm, sunny days.
But help is on the way.
The City Council’s License Committee returned from the long holiday weekend Tuesday and unanimously advanced Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to make permanent an al fresco dining program that helped many restaurants and bars survive during the pandemic.
Unlike former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s stalled recipe, Johnson’s version requires annual approval from local alderpersons before restaurants and bars are allowed to set up tables in the curb lane, in adjacent parking lots, on sidewalks in front of adjacent neighbors and in the entire street if any three businesses petition for it.
Tuesday’s vote sets the table for final approval at Wednesday’s full Council meeting.
The Chicago Department of Transportation will immediately begin accepting permit applications from restaurants after that. Permits will run from May 1 through Oct.31.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) applauded the new mayor for preserving the sweeping power known around City Hall as aldermanic prerogative. He argued that Council members “know the conditions of neighborhoods” they represent “better than anyone” because they “touch it and feel it” on a daily basis.
“Conditions change. Traffic patterns change. New development, new density could impact these closures and footprints, which is why we felt it was so important that these not be automatically renewed each year but go through a thorough review annually to make sure that they still fit the character of the neighborhood in context with everything else that’s going on at the time,” Reilly said.
“The last administration, hell-bent on taking aldermen out of the equation, refused to allow us to have the ability to stop these from happening. … I want to applaud Mayor Johnson for recognizing that aldermen need to have a seat at this particular table because, if these aren’t done properly, it can be incredibly disruptive to the neighborhood.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) represents a burgeoning Near West Side ward that includes the Fulton Market district, with trendy restaurants along Randolph Street.
“I want to thank Alderman Reilly for voicing his opinion and making sure that the aldermen are not left out in the process. That’s the most important part of this because we take the pulse of the community. We’re right there. We can’t get away,” Burnett said.
“When the community got a problem, we got a problem. That’s what I tell every business. If the community got a problem, then you’ve got a problem with me because we get their pulse and we have to advocate for the pulse of the community..”
The decision to cancel automatic renewal and retain annual aldermanic veto power is not the only change included in the Johnson-brokered compromise.
To incorporate “lessons learned” during the pandemic, Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said restaurants will be allowed to operate in the curb lane in front of their establishments. That will avert the need for pedestrians to be “routed off the sidewalk and into the street.”
“The curb and the travel lane in between — typically where you might see parking—that is new real estate that would be part of this program. We felt that it was not only popular, but it also improves allowing for the right-of-way on the sidewalk. Getting at least six [feet] of clearance for folks who actually need to move on the sidewalk and not be entangled in the outdoor dining. So, it’s a huge improvement for the program,” Biagi said.
“The prior ordinance was not including parking lots. In certain areas of the city that is the only opportunity. While it’s not our preference at CDOT to have jurisdiction over a private parking lot, we recognize that we have to find a way to make it work. So we may return to this body in the future with a better solution. But we recognize that really has to happen and so that’s included in this ordinance.”
North Side Ald. Bennett Lawson said Chicago has historically been “very strict about outdoor anything, but COVID has forced us to re-think” that rigid stance.
“I hope we can continue to look at what we can do outside. … Our retailers also took a hit. Sidewalks sales are not as easy sometimes as sidewalk cafes. So, I want to find a way to uplift them” as well, Lawson said.
License Committee Chair Debra Silverstein (50th) said she’s “so happy” the outdoor dining ordinance is the first to pass under her leadership.
“It’s just a win for everybody,” Silverstein said.