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Council committee OKs 'curbside cafes' in parking lane

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) describes his concept for curbside cafes at a License Committee hearing Tuesday. |Fran Spielman/For Sun-Times

Restaurants in neighborhoods with sidewalks too narrow to accommodate both tables and pedestrians will soon be free to cash in on Chicago’s love affair with outdoor dining.

At the behest of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Tom Tunney (44th), the City Council’s License Committee on Tuesday authorized a two-year test that would allow restaurants next to narrow sidewalks to put tables in the parking lane closest to the curb.

In exchange for the privilege of opening so-called “curbside cafes,” restaurants would be required to reimburse the company that leases Chicago parking meters for the parking spaces lost to restaurant tables.

License holders would also be required to “install and maintain a physical boundary that separates 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.”

Tunney said he has no idea what the demand will be. But he hopes to test the idea with about a half-dozen curbside cafes along Clark Street in Lincoln Park.

“We’re really trying to be innovative. We’re also trying to assist our small businesses and be a little creative with this. It could be an opportunity for you and your licensees in your wards to have another opportunity to enliven the street traffic, help the retail merchant and give them another opportunity to expand their sales,” Tunney said.

Curbside cafes are already popular in other major cities like San Francisco with sidewalk constraints similar to Chicago.

“There are some streets in our city that are really old and narrow. And they just make it impossible for people to really enjoy the kind of amenities that we’re providing in so many other areas,” Smith said.

“This is a positive program to try and help local businesses in specific areas of the city where the sidewalks are just too narrow, from being old, having streets widened at a time when pedestrian traffic wasn’t as favored.”

Curbside café season would run from May 1 through Sept. 30. That’s four months shorter than sidewalk café season, which runs from March 1 through Nov. 30.

But Tunney said there are good reasons for the difference.

“We’re replacing meter money for practical purposes. I don’t want two months of inactivity where [restaurants] are paying,” Tunney said.

“We’re also working with Streets and San about how to get the furniture off the street so we can get the streets [plowed]. God forbid we have snow in November [and restaurants can say], `Oh no. We’re allowed to have our stuff on the street until Nov. 30.’ “

Deputy Corporation Counsel Rose Kelly added, “A big concern is cleaning and snow removal. As you know, we can get snow in October in Chicago. We can get snow in April. If it snows overnight and that hasn’t been taken up and it freezes, it really is a safety concern of having them out there during those periods where it may be snowing”

Ald. John Arena (45th) said he has “a couple of pedestrian designations” in his Northwest Side ward where he would love to test the concept of curbside cafes.

But Arena urged Tunney to extend the curbside café season to justify an expense that could put a big dent in a restaurant’s bottom line.

Curbside cafes are an outgrowth of the 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 promote the idea of people lounging around, having a cup of coffee and reading the paper.

“Some of these People Spots — the ones that we’re working on — are more than $10,000 just for the base. I could see the initial investment that a restaurant is putting in to create the structure, but we’re limiting their opportunity” to recoup their costs, Arena said.

“I just want to be able to talk to a restaurateur and say, `Your initial cost of investment here is going to be high. You’ve got — not only the $600 [permit]. You’ve got the meters you’ve got to pay for and this physical structure that has to be built and stored year after year.’ I’m sure there’s going to be questions of, we want to get every day we can out of it.”

The ordinance approved Tuesday defines a curbside café as an “immobile retail food establishments operating” without music between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 pm. weekdays and until 11 p.m. on weekends “in a section of the traffic lane closest to the curb that is normally used for parking.”

The $600 permit would be issued only if the curbside café 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 would be limited to one per block. They could be no longer than the front of the restaurant or 40 feet, “whichever is less.”

During the two-year pilot, curbside cafes would prohibited in the Central Business District, a protected bike lane, an area within 30 feet of a stop sign or controlled intersection, an area within 20 feet of all other intersections or within 1,200 feet of Wrigley Field