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Downtown alderman wants to flag sidewalk cafes for encroachment

There’s an old saying that Chicago has only two seasons: winter and construction. But warm-weather season actually has a second element: sidewalk cafes.

Now, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) wants to flag sidewalk cafes for encroachment to prevent pedestrians from having to navigate sidewalks that have been made even narrower by some cafes going beyond their intended borders.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Reilly introduced an ordinance that would empower the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to order the temporary shutdown of any sidewalk café that’s been issued violations notices on three different days during the permit period that pertain to a “significant breach of public safety.”

Grounds for temporary closure would include: “encroachment on the public way beyond specifications; missing or incomplete barrier or signs, serving tray stands or other objects in the public way.”

Only after the “objectionable conditions have been fully remedied” and the commissioner is satisfied that the violations “will not re-occur” would the sidewalk café be allowed to reopen.

<small><strong>Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd). | Sun-Times File Photo</strong></small>
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd). | Sun-Times File Photo

The issue would come up again when sidewalks cafes targeted for temporary shutdown try to get their permits renewed.

If the encroachment charges were sustained, City Hall could order the renewal “conditioned upon a written plan of operator or other city of conditions” City Hall deems necessary or deny the new permit altogether.

In addition to temporary closure, fines would range from $200 to $500, per day, for each offense.

Reilly stressed that “95 percent of the restaurant industry plays by the rules” and adheres to the sidewalk café boundaries established by the city. But the 5 percent of restaurants that don’t can create a dangerous dilemma for pedestrians, the alderman said.

“In certain cases when outdoor cafes are altered, they’re providing 2, maybe 3 feet of pedestrian clearance, and the city minimum is 6 feet of clearance. The consequence is forcing pedestrians to walk in traffic off the curb, which is very dangerous. In the Central Business District, pedestrian safety needs to be a priority,” Reilly said Thursday.

“We’ve had some instances where restaurants are taking tremendous liberties — extending their cafes the length of a block well beyond their footprint and making major alterations to their café structure during the season without amending their plan. . . . The intent is to empower the commissioner to order closures when operators are abusing this privilege.”

At Wednesday’s Council meeting, Reilly also introduced an ordinance that would allow patrons of the 70 outdoor patios and rooftop gardens in downtown Chicago to continue to indulge until the witching hour.

Four years ago, Reilly moved — from 11 p.m. until midnight — the mandatory closing for outdoor patios and rooftop gardens at the request of the Illinois Restaurant Association, the Illinois Hotel Lodging Association and others in the hospitality industry who “recognize that Chicago is becoming a global destination” and needs to change its dining ways to accommodate that popularity.

He made it a pilot program with an annual sunset to gauge the impact on surrounding residents. It’s been renewed every year since then.

“This is an annual exercise. We’re just once again extending the hours until midnight. I know the industry appreciates that extra revenue, since we only have a few good months a year for weather,” Reilly said Wednesday.

“The agreement with the Police Department which initially had concerns was that this would be annual review and, if people were abusing this privilege, we wouldn’t extend the hours. But so far, the industry has been behaving properly and not taking advantage of that.”

Over the years, Chicago has issued more than 800 sidewalk café permits and nearly 300 outdoor patio licenses allowing operators to cash in on the city’s love affair with outdoor dining.

As much as that pleases patrons eager to dine al fresco, that’s how big of an obstacle course the narrowed sidewalks can create for pedestrians.

When a sidewalk café encroaches beyond its intended boundaries, the problem gets ever worse.

The last two major changes to the law governing sidewalk cafes added two months to the outdoor dining season and allowed dogs.

The doggie dining ordinance had strings attached to the two-year, $250 license.

Only controlled dogs with rabies tags are allowed. The ordinance also requires dog-friendly areas.

Mika Stambaugh, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said sidewalk cafes “add to the vibrancy of any business. But she expressed support for Reilly’s crackdown.“The public way is a space for pedestrians to move about safely and this will help eliminate any potential accidents,” Stambaugh wrote in an email.Stambaugh noted that, as of March 7, there were 839 sidewalk café permits issued and 1,132 sidewalk permits introduced. The sidewalk café season runs from from March 1 to December 1 .