Johnson forges compromise to expand outdoor dining in Chicago

The mayor is making permanent an expanded outdoor dining program that helped restaurants and bars get through the pandemic, while he preserves input from the local alderperson.

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Outdoor dining is allowed on a stretch of Clark Street in River North through Nov. 18.

Outdoor dining is set up on a stretch of Clark Street in River North last year. Most neighborhood residents support keeping a three-block stretch closed, 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly said.

Outdoor dining is allowed on a stretch of Clark Street in River North through Nov. 18. This picture was taken on Nov. 1, 2022, looking north on Clark from Illinois Street. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson is breathing new life into Lori Lightfoot’s stalled plan to make permanent an outdoor dining program that was a lifesaver for restaurants and bars during the darkest days of the pandemic — but in a way that preserves input from local City Council members.

Lightfoot’s plan hit a roadblock for two major reasons.

It allowed a three-block stretch of Clark Street to be closed to make way for expanded outdoor dining. And it automatically renewed permits that allowed restaurants and bars to set up tables in the curb lane, in adjacent parking lots, on sidewalks in front of adjacent neighbors and in the entire street if any three businesses petitioned for it.

It also didn’t require any input from the local alderperson.

With outdoor dining season in full bloom and summer fast approaching, Johnson was under pressure to break the legislative logjam.

But he was determined to do it in a way that preserves input and veto power for Council members in their wards.

The result is a compromise ordinance being introduced Wednesday, when Johnson presides over his first City Council meeting.

It will eliminate the streamlined, automatic renewal process and require signoff from the local alderperson annually.

Only retail food establishments that have “on-premises” consumption will be eligible for expanded outdoor dining permits.

Taverns would be permitted to set up outdoor tables and operate sidewalk cafes, but only if they allow food service. And the requirement that a business be ineligible for a sidewalk café in order to apply for a curb lane permit was removed.

In addition, two full-street closing permit holders would be authorized to finish the season, even if the third petitioner “voluntarily ceases business” or had its operating license “revoked for cause.”

Although there is no way to recoup outdoor dining business lost during this glorious stretch of sunny days that is expected to continue over Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago Department of Transportation will immediately begin accepting permit applications.

That will allow eligible restaurants and bars to begin setting up more outdoor tables as soon as the City Council grants final approval in June.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Johnson’s Council floor leader and hand-picked Zoning Committee chair, said the compromise underscores the difference between Chicago’s new mayor and the old one.

“The prior administration wanted to automatically renew any street closure granted during the pandemic. That posed an issue to a lot of downtown businesses. Community stakeholders wanted the opportunity to weigh in. The outgoing administration also wanted to fast-track some controversial street closures, like Clark Street,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“By nixing automatic renewal, that ensures that every year, applicants will have to go to the city to seek a permit. That ensures that the community will have an opportunity to address any issues that may have arisen” in the last year.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes downtown, embraced the compromise because it “eliminates annual renewals and now requires aldermanic approval.” In an email to the Sun-Times, Reilly said he “appreciates the mayor’s leadership” and willingness to collaborate.

“Many businesses availed themselves of this program during COVID, and it proved to be a godsend for the hospitality industry & their employees. I believe the program saved countless businesses from going under during the pandemic,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“The outdoor dining program was also wildly popular with neighborhood residents, commuters and tourists — transforming once noisy streets into calm, quiet pedestrian spaces and piazzas for the public to enjoy,” Reilly said.

In late October, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents urged Lightfoot to scrap plans to close a three-block stretch of Clark Street between Grand and Kinzie.

Since then, Reilly has conducted a survey of River North residents that drew over 3,000 responses. More than 87% of those surveyed supported the closing of Clark Street to make way for outdoor dining.

Even so, Reilly said his support for “any future proposed street closures” in his ward would “depend entirely” on “details and proposals” in those applications.

“Overly ambitious proposals that place an undue burden on infrastructure, loading and the right of way will be rejected or amended,” he wrote.

Lightfoot’s ordinance died with the old Council. So did her proposal to eliminate alderpersons’ input over street closures.

What does the outdoor dining compromise say about the future of the sweeping power known as “aldermanic prerogative?”

“The previous mayor ran a quixotic campaign against local aldermanic input. She thought it was good politics. … It really put her on the wrong foot with the Council,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“To try to take away an elected official’s voice — to try to curtail their ability to represent the people who elected them is, at its heart, problematic,” he said. “Aldermen can’t sit on this forever. Within 30 days, they either have to give it the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said expanded outdoor dining can pave the way for restaurants that operate on razor-thin profit margins to expand their footprints up to 40%.

“This is very, very important to restaurant owners and operators as we move into the summer months,” said Toia. “Chicago is the summer city of all American cities. People like to visit us. It’s all about tourism. And when they come here, they love to eat outdoors.”

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