Six of Chicago’s most popular restaurant corridors will be closed to through traffic to give restaurants more space and revenue from outdoor dining under a long-awaited mayoral rescue plan unveiled Friday.
At a time when indoor dining is still prohibited in Illinois, Mayor Lori Lori Lightfoot has been talking for weeks about finding ways to make outdoor dining more lucrative by allowing restaurants with sidewalk café permits to set up even more tables in the street.
On Friday, the mayor took the first step toward delivering that plan for restaurants fighting for survival in Chatham, Lake View, Little Village, the Gold Coast, the Near West Side and West Loop.
Six commercial corridors will be closed to through traffic during designated lunch and dinner hours following a streamlined permit process that Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia hopes will take “days — not weeks.”
- 75th Street between Calumet and Indiana avenues
- Broadway between Belmont and Diversey avenues
- 26th Street between Central Park and Harding avenues
- Rush Street between Oak and Cedar streets
- Taylor Street from Loomis to Ashland avenues
- Randolph Street, west of the Kennedy Expressway “no further than Elizabeth.”
Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said the days and hours of street closings will be determined in coordination with local restaurant owners and chambers of commerce.
In some neighborhoods, it could be Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. In other areas with coffee shops, breakfast and lunch places, there could be midday closings that extend throughout the week.
“We’re gonna just have to navigate through that together and make sure that it’s working in each neighborhood. And the possibility is, it could be different in each neighborhood,” Biagi said.
“Once we get some applications in, then we’ll have a good measure of how quickly it can [start]. That might be different, depending on the corridor. In some cases, there’s a little more space to work with that might make it easier to roll out more quickly. In other places, there are a few more challenges that we’ll have to just work through together.”
Biagi acknowledged the street closings might require the city to compensate the consortium that leases Chicago parking meters for any taken out of service.
“We’ve got to get our economy back online. Our restaurant industry is so special in Chicago. It’s a big part of our identity. We’re all gonna try to just get in line, pull on the same rope and make this happen. That includes running through some of the challenges — whether it’s parking meters or the geometry of the street,” she said.
Toia applauded the mayor for “thinking outside the box” at a time when he fears 25% of Chicago restaurants may never reopen.
“This is something we need to do in America 2.0 as we live with COVID-19. We’ll be able to get more tables out with social distancing,” Toia said.
“Because we’ve never done this before, this is a great first step. I look forward to ... including more neighborhoods like Rogers Park, Pilsen and Hyde Park. Hopefully, this program goes good and we can do another six areas real quick and keep expanding. We could get to 18 or 24 if we keep moving out six at a time. … Let’s see how we go through the summer here. Maybe it’s something we could look at permanently.”
Lightfoot has said no restaurant will “be able to survive, depending upon what the weather is gonna be like on a particular day in Chicago.”
She has joined Toia in urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to loosen the reins and let restaurants — particularly smaller neighborhood places that don’t have sidewalk cafes — open their doors to at least some indoor dining during the month of June.
“What we’re starting to do June 3 here in the city, and throughout the state today, is a step in the right direction. But it’s not helping all our neighborhood restaurants — all our breakfast restaurants that don’t have outside dining,” Toia said.
“If COVID-19 keeps flattening and we keep hitting our metrics, we’d like to see inside dining rooms open so we can help restaurants throughout the neighborhoods because no restaurant model was ever put together to go 10 to 11 weeks with no sales or 20% to 30% percent of the sales they were seeing the year before.”
Until Pritzker loosens his grip, restaurants will be at the mercy of Chicago’s fickle weather.
“A lot of restaurant owner-operators are making sure they have umbrellas. Possibly, they’re getting tents up. But what’s gonna happen in most cases when it does start raining, you’re gonna have to have your food packaged up to go,” Toia said.
The mayor’s plan to repurpose streets also calls for converting residential streets into recreational use for local residents itching to walk, run and bike while maintaining social distance, particularly while the lakefront remains closed.
The so-called “Our Streets” program will start on the North and Northwest Sides. But it won’t end there. Biagi said more than 500 requests have been received.
“Our goal is not to do what, maybe, other cities have done, which is to say, `We have decided that we’re going to close your street.’ We want to have that conversation. That helps drive where the projects go,” Biagi said.
“Where we start is not where we finish at all. … We’re inviting the whole city to fill up this map. If you don’t see your neighborhood on that map, raise your hand.”