Tunney wants to test ‘curbside cafes’ to enliven Clark Street

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Chicago’s love affair with outdoor dining has already prompted the city to issue 1,151 sidewalk cafe permits this year. But what about restaurants in areas with sidewalks too narrow to accommodate both tables and pedestrians?

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) has an answer: curbside cafes.

Before the City Council adjourned for the summer, Tunney introduced an ordinance that would empower the city to test the idea of allowing restaurants located along pedestrian streets to put tables in the curb lane between May 1 and Sept. 30.

In exchange for the privilege, restaurants would be required to reimburse the company that leased Chicago parking meters for the loss of metered parking spaces and put up barriers to protect patrons from traffic.

Tunney said he hopes to test the idea next year with about a half-dozen curbside cafes along retail strips that could use a shot in the arm and the additional “buzz” created by outdoor dining.

“We’ve been working with the local chambers on ways to enhance the retail corridor in Lincoln Park and Lake View. We want to generate more business on Clark Street. We’re gonna try to do a pilot in our neighborhood and possibly along Clark Street in Lincoln Park between Diversey and Wellington,” the alderman said.

“There’s a number of restaurants with sidewalks too narrow to have a sidewalk cafe in front of their establishment. You have to maintain six feet of clearance for pedestrians. In some places, it’s pretty impossible to have sidewalk cafes. So we would allow the curbside to be used as a cafe. We’ll do it as a pilot and see where it goes. I hope it helps business and creates more business on our retail streets. That’s the goal.”

Tunney said the curbside cafes are an “outgrowth” of so-called “People Spots.” That’s the Chicago Department of Transportation’s ongoing program to put benches, tables, chairs and trees in the middle of the street — with barriers or elevated sidewalks to protect patrons — “to enhance the idea of people lounging around, having a cup of coffee and reading the paper,” Tunney said.

“People Spots are not for private benefit. Curbside cafes would benefit the restaurants and the retail strip,” Tunney said.

“We’re not looking to make money on it. But the cost of the barriers and the loss of metered parking would be borne by the licensee. Two or three parking spaces could be lost [to each cafe]. We don’t want to have to pay the meter company.”

Last month, the City Council approved a watered-down plan to make it easier for the city 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.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly’s original plan would have empowered the City Hall to order the temporary shutdown of any sidewalk cafe that’s been issued violation notices on three different days during the permit period that pertain to a “significant breach of public safety.”

The weaker version simply empowered ward superintendents and other designated city workers to issue citations to sidewalk cafes that expand beyond their borders, particularly on weekends when the city work force is thin. Fines range between $200 and $500.

On Thursday, Tunney said he’s not at all concerned that the curbside cafes could create a similar problem. In fact, giving up the lane closest to the sidewalk is tailor-made to prevent sidewalk congestion.

“It would enliven some of these streets with curbside activity,” he said.

Co-sponsored by Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), the ordinance defines a curbside cafe as an “immobile retail food establishments operating” without music between the hours of 8 a.m. and midnight “in a section of the traffic lane closest to the curb that is normally used for parking.”

The $100 permit would be issued only if the curbside cafe does not “unreasonably interfere with adequate pedestrian or vehicular flow, pedestrian and vehicular safety and the aesthetic quality of the surrounding area.”

Curbside cafes would be confined to designated “pedestrian retail streets” in areas where the sidewalk in front of a restaurant is less than 8 feet wide. They could not be more than 25 feet long nor could the curbside cafe “extend into the street beyond the parking lane.”

License holders would be required to “install and maintain a physical boundary to separate the permitted outdoor seating area from the remainder of traffic lanes” and build the cafe “to make its floor height the same height as the sidewalk to avoid a tripping hazard.”

Cafe owners would also be required to “pay an amount equal to any anticipated lost parking meter revenue for any parking space used for the operation of” the cafe.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Department of Transportation launched an innovative project to convert Argyle Street between Broadway and Sheridan into Chicago’s first “shared street.”

The plan calls for raising the level of the street and eliminating curbs to create the feel of a plaza that, City Hall hopes, will be filled with street fairs and sidewalk cafes.

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