Streeterville group opposes regular closing of Clark Street for outdoor dining in River North
In a letter to the mayor, Streeterville Organization of Active Residents President Deborah Gershbein declared her group “strongly opposed” to closing Clark Street between Grand and Kinzie, in part because of its proximity to the proposed interim casino at Medinah Temple.
One of Chicago’s oldest and most influential community organizations is urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot to scrap plans to allow a three-block stretch of Clark Street to be closed to make way for expanded outdoor dining.
In an Oct. 27 letter to the mayor, obtained by the Sun-Times, Streeterville Organization of Active Residents President Deborah Gershbein said her 47-year-old group is “strongly opposed” to permanently closing Clark Street between Grand and Kinzie. In part, that’s due to its proximity to Medinah Temple, on Clark Street a block north of Grand, the proposed location for an interim casino.
“It will cause even more major traffic gridlock if the Clark Street closure continues. Consequences of this closure include delayed response times for emergency vehicles, public transportation and delivery vehicles,” Gershbein wrote.
Clark Street is a “major north/south arterial street that carried 21,000 cars-per-day” before the temporary closure to allow expanded outdoor dining during the pandemic. Those vehicles “did not go away” but simply were “re-routed into Streeterville and River North,” making it difficult for eastbound and westbound traffic to get into and out of the neighborhood, Gershbein said.
Since “traffic is back to a more normal level, it is time to re-open Clark Street,” Gershbein wrote.
“Closing Clark Street between Grand and Kinzie impedes resident and worker ability to travel out of Streeterville into River North and beyond. ... We request that you reconsider the proposed ordinance and to not include Clark Street in that ordinance.”
A mayor’s office spokesman noted the expanded outdoor dining program “has supported hundreds of restaurants since its implementation in 2020.” A proposed ordinance would create a permanent program, with permits issued by the city’s Department of Transportation and valid from May 1 through Oct. 31 every year.
In an email to the Sun-Times, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he opposes that approach.
The program “should not be administered unilaterally by the Mayor’s office, nor should it be deemed automatic. It is critical that local alderpersons ... determine the timing and dates of these closures in consultation with local businesses and residents who are impacted. The mayor’s ordinance completely shuts out the local alderperson and their constituents from the decision-making process over which streets to close, when and for how long,” Reilly wrote.
There is, Reilly said, “no proposal to ‘permanently’ close Clark Street to vehicular traffic year-round.”
Still, the Streeterville group raises “very valid concerns” about “significantly increased” traffic and the “anticipated avalanche of new traffic concerns” the temporary casino could bring to the already congested neighborhood, Reilly wrote.
His office has fielded only a “handful of complaints” about the Clark Street closure amid “significant positive feedback from most River North residents,” Reilly wrote.
“Supporters of the Clark Street closure are in favor of a limited seasonal closure — not a year-round or permanent closure.”
Reilly said River North traffic has “increased dramatically” as more workers, tourists and conventiongoers return to downtown.
“Given that significantly increased traffic, I am skeptical a Clark Street closure for any length of time will be feasible in the event the temporary casino opens at Medinah Temple,” he wrote.
Brian Israel, president of the River North Residents Association, agreed that a review of the existing program is needed, including a survey of River North residents, before future closures are approved.
In an email to the Sun-Times, Israel added that “any program that uses portions of the public way for private commercial purposes should be carefully considered with regard to their impacts on: pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow; public safety; emergency vehicle access; and all area businesses.”
Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) joined with Reilly to oppose both Bally’s plan for a $1.7 billion permanent casino in River West, as well as the temporary casino at Medinah.
Hopkins said he, too, is “adamantly against” Lightfoot’s plan to eliminate “aldermanic prerogative” when it comes to street closures allowing expanded outdoor dining.
“It’s a non-starter. Once again, she’s usurping aldermanic decision-making capability. And this is a classic example of why that’s a mistake,” Hopkins said.
“When you have a situation like the Clark Street closure where there are strong arguments in favor and strong arguments against from a constituency, there is no better person to make that decision than the local alderman, because he or she is accountable to everyone,” he said.
Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant magnate Richard Melman owns Bub City, 435 N. Clark, one of the restaurants that has benefited from the Clark Street closure. Melman has contributed $50,000 to Lightfoot’s reelection campaign since mid-July.
The current closure of Clark Street for outdoor dining runs through Nov. 18.
Contributing: Tim Novak