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Chicago’s sidewalk space crunch: As cafes gobble up space for pedestrians, more complaints are coming in

‘As more people come and enjoy the neighborhood, it just gets harder,’ says Michele Lee, a West Loop resident and power wheelchair user who often finds she has to thread her way around restaurant tables, chairs jutting into the sidewalk.

A pedestrian navigates a sidewalk crowded with cafe seating, foliage and scooters in the 100 block of North Green Street in the West Loop.
A pedestrian navigates a sidewalk crowded with cafe seating, foliage and scooters in the 100 block of North Green Street in the West Loop.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

Sidewalk cafes in Chicago are booming, and the number of complaints about them is going up, too.

There are now more than 1,100 permitted sidewalk cafes.

There were 27 complaints filed with the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection about sidewalk cafes in 2016, 103 in 2017 and 106 last year.

This year already has topped that, with 138, most complaining that restaurants have taken more space than they’re supposed to, blocking pedestrian access with tables, chairs, planters and equipment.

“As more people come and enjoy the neighborhood, it just gets harder,” says Michele Lee, 37, a senior analyst for Aon who lives in the West Loop, uses a power wheelchair and often finds she has to thread her way around cafes jutting far into the sidewalk.

WATCH: Michele Lee and Bridget Hayman maneuver their wheelchairs past West Loop sidewalk cafes.

City Hall has issued 629 citations at 417 sidewalk cafes since 2017. About a dozen cafes a year are cited more than once.

Beside fines of $200 to $500 for each offense, a cafe cited for three or more violations on different days can be subject to permit revocation, though that hasn’t happened in recent years, a City Hall spokesman says.

In Chicago, restaurants have to apply for a permit to operate an outdoor dining area and must leave at least six feet of sidewalk space, unless they get a variance approved by City Hall. That’s how much room there’s supposed to be between the cafe boundary and the sidewalk or between the cafe boundary and any street signs, planters, newspaper boxes, fire hydrants and other permanent obstacles.

For cafes positioned next to the street rather than right up against a restaurant’s building, the city requires at least one foot of space between the cafe and the curb.

And cafe barriers must be detectable by pedestrians with visual impairments.

Walking around neighborhoods with the most sidewalk cafes, a Sun-Times reporter found downtown generally is the most forgiving for pedestrians because of its wide sidewalks.

But it can get pretty tight in neighborhoods like the West Loop, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Lake View and Andersonville, the Sun-Times found. Sidewalk cafes in these neighborhoods have drawn complaints including:

  • Having too little space for pedestrians to pass.
  • Opening too early, staying open too late or playing music that’s too loud.
  • Smoking.
  • Operating without a permit.
  • Having menu boards or equipment that block the public way.

The crunch is especially acute in the West Loop, where small factories and food suppliers have given way to restaurants, offices, shops and condos.

That’s where Lee lives. She finds it increasingly tough to maneuver on sidewalks. On the north side of West Randolph Street, Lee had to weave past 11 planters, cafe tables and chairs, an outdoor bar, a signpost, a lightpole and signal box, three trees and an electric scooter — all just to go about 60 feet.

In that stretch, Bad Hunter, 802 W. Randolph St., was cited twice last year for having less than six feet of clearance and fined $300 each time.

On Tuesday, a City Hall spokesman said, “We investigated Bad Hunter last week and issued additional citations. Based on their disciplinary history, we will seek the maximum penalty possible and will follow up with the location to make sure the sidewalk cafe is corrected to reflect their approved site plan.”

The restaurant’s management didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Nearby, at Sushi Dokku, at Randolph Street and Green Street, a manager said the cafe had the required six feet of space for pedestrians. A Sun-Times reporter measured the space, though, and found just 35 inches between the cafe boundary and a tree grate filled with pebbles.

Next door, at The Allis Chicago, 113-125 N. Green St., there were only 32 inches between the cafe and a metal post. The Allis did not respond to a request for comment.

“When there’s going to be more foot traffic and a larger residential population, you’ve got to think that through,” says Bridget Hayman of Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

Rosa Escareno, Chicago’s commissioner for business affairs and consumer protection, says the city aims to strike a balance between outdoor eating areas and accessibility and safety.

“If a cafe is causing a nuisance in the neighborhood, or if an owner fails to maintain the required six-foot clearance on the sidewalk, we encourage residents to call 311,” Escareno says.

Caitlyn McDermott, a longtime West Loop resident, says she often walks into the street to get around sidewalk cafes and bought a tandem stroller for her twins: The side-by-side double-stroller she had couldn’t squeeze by in spots.

Matt Letourneau, president of the Neighbors of West Loop organization, says things used to be worse when restaurants first came in. The way he looks at things now: “The sidewalk real estate is at a premium just like the rest of the real estate in the neighborhood.”

This stretch of the 800 block of West Randolph Street is crowded with an outdoor bar, planters, trees, stacked tables and chairs and other obstacles.
This stretch of the 800 block of West Randolph Street is crowded with an outdoor bar, planters, trees, stacked tables and chairs and other obstacles.
Stephanie Zimmermann / Sun-Times