Chicago opens its arms to gaming lounges popular among teens

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Chicago is about to open its arms to the gaming lounges that have become a “worldwide phenomenon” for giving young people a safe place to socialize and engage in video game competition.

At the behest of Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), the City Council’s Zoning Committee approved a code amendment Thursday that would make it easier for gaming lounges to set up shop in areas zoned for commercial use.

No longer would they need to be located on a five-acre site or obtain a tavern license and a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals that allows area residents to object.

Mell’s Northwest Side ward is home to the Ignite Gaming Lounge, 3341 N. Elston. The lounge bills itself as a “unique social environment that redefines the way you play video games with your friends.”

Photos on the Ignite website show a warehouse filled with large tables, a snack bar and couches in front of a big-screen TV. Each table has room for roughly eight players, with computer screens, keyboards and headsets.

The lounge is open between 2 p.m. and 3 a.m. Monday through Friday. It features gaming on personal computers, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Wii. Rates range from $5 for one hour and $12 for three hours to $19 for five hours and $25 for eight hours.

“The city was requiring them to obtain a tavern license, which is ridiculous because the clientele was under 21 — and they don’t want a tavern license. But the city was saying, `You have to have it to be able to operate in this location,’ ” Mell said Thursday.

“The code says that if you want to do these arcade-type gaming places, they had to be in those big old strip malls. This [change] says that we allow them basically more in neighborhoods.”

At a time when shootings and homicides are on the rise, Mell said Chicago should be encouraging places that provide a safe haven for kids, particularly during high-crime summer months.

“It’s a nice, safe place where kids can go and congregate. It’s like a social thing for them, too. We’re seeing it in other cities. They have a lot of these gaming areas where kids get together and play other kids throughout the country or the world actually,” she said.

If the full City Council approves the zoning change, Ignite could open additional gaming lounges in Chicago, said Flavius Maximus, one of the owners. The demand is that great, he said.

“Even though we’re entering a digital age, people still want to meet face to face. We’re socializing online. But there’s still a need for physical interaction. People are willing to come out and do the digital activities, but pay for it to be face-to-face with their friends,” Maximus said.

Maximus tied the center’s zoning troubles to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to eliminate 60 percent of all city licenses. Before the consolidation, Ignite was licensed as a computer center. When that category was eliminated, the lounge was “in limbo” and ordered to get a tavern license, Maximus said.

“We were going to go through with the tavern license. But the community really pushed for the facility to remain as it was. They wanted it to be family-friendly. They saw it as a safe place for teens to do what they do: play video games,” he said.

Zoning Administrator Patty Scudiero said the change advanced Thursday would allow for amusement arcades in commercial districts.

“If they wanted to be a tavern, they could still go through the tavern process. But if they wanted to just be an arcade that serves food, soft drinks and juices and nothing else plus the games, they would be permitted as a right,” Scudiero said.

“We’re amending the code to strike the language about five acres. Strike the language about special use as a tavern. And allow it in C-districts as a right. This is the future. For those of us who are [a little older], we can’t quite comprehend it. But I understand . . . it’s very successful. It might be the wave of the future.”

Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) said gaming lounges are more like the wave of the present.

“Being the dad of a 14-year-old. . . . I know how popular this type of gaming is. . . . This is a worldwide phenomenon. People get together in the hundreds and compete,” Solis said.

By relaxing the zoning requirements, Solis said, “It’s going to open up a bigger demand. That, of course, will give us some very much-needed revenue for the city. I also think this is an opportunity for very healthy and safe types of gaming that gets young people involved and in secure areas.”

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