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Sold as South Loop boon, Wintrust Arena parking ban hurting business

A new parking ban in the South Loop for Wintrust Arena events is angering local businesses who already deal with the challenges of Soldier Field parking restrictions. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

In selling the new, 10,000-seat Wintrust Arena to the South Loop community four years ago, the city called it a boon that would bring new customers to businesses in an area on the cusp of renaissance.

What the city didn’t mention was an accompanying event-parking ban — atop an existing Soldier Field events ban.

The result: lots of angry customers with $60 tickets. Businesses can get parking passes for their patrons from the alderman’s office — but they must chase down customers to get the passes back.

“Every one of my customers had parking tickets when they left recently, because apparently there was an event, and we didn’t know. And running back and forth to the alderman’s office for parking passes has created an extra burden,” said Racquel Fields, owner of the 14 Parish restaurant, 2333 S. Michigan Ave.

Racquel Fields, owns two businesses in Motor Row. She’s seen here at her restaurant 14 Parish. She said she’s had some angry customers who have been ticketed under a new parking ban in the South Loop for Wintrust Arena events. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“The arena may become popular in the long run, but right now, half of Chicago doesn’t know it exists, and this parking ban has proven a hindrance to small businesses in an area still struggling,” Fields added.

The city earlier this year expanded the 2010 ordinance banning parking on some streets during Chicago Bears games and other Soldier Field events. The revised ordinance added the arena, 200 E. Cermak Rd., and enlarged the parking ban footprint to include blocks far from both venues.

Local Ald. Pat Dowell says businesses and residents had plenty of warning about a new parking ban in the South Loop for Wintrust Arena events. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The signs went up in mid-October. Enforcement began Nov. 11, when DePaul’s Blue Demons played Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish in their first home game in the arena.

Built and operated by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, Wintrust cost taxpayers $82 million, with DePaul splitting the $164 million pricetag. Besides DePaul’s basketball teams, it also is home to the WNBA Chicago Sky, as well as an event center for McCormick Place.

Critics had called it a vanity project, accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel of misplaced priorities. Emanuel touted it as a Near South Side economic development accelerator. McPier hopes to book 50 events there this first year.

DePaul and Note Dame tip off in DePaul’s first NCAA college basketball game in the new Wintrust Arena on Nov. 11. | Associated Press

The ban covers an area bounded by Roosevelt Road, I-55, Clark Street and Lake Shore Drive.

“Because of the way the arena was going to be used, we had the whole area covered by the [revised] parking restriction,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

Businesses say that decision threatens their livelihoods.

“We voiced our concern this parking ban would hinder businesses. If somebody comes into the neighborhood, how do they know to ask for a pass?” asked Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, president and executive director of the Near South Planning Board. “We have to find a better solution.”

Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, executive director of the Near South Planning Board. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Contacted about the complaints, the city said it is reviewing the ban.

“We are still studying the impact of Wintrust Arena on customers and residents, and we remain open to changes to the parking plan in the future,” said Molly Poppe, spokeswoman for the Office of Budget and Management.

Robbie Glick, owner of Reggie’s Music Joint and Reggie’s Rock Club, 2105-2109 S. State St., said he hopes changes are forthcoming, as it’s tough operating with bans governing two venues.

“Our customers have to get a pass to put in their windows. We have to know if there’s an event and where they parked, and get the passes back. And miles of parking are being held hostage, even during small events,” said Glick. “Wrigley Field is much bigger, and I’m allowed to park there as long as I feed the meters. This makes no sense.”

A new parking ban in the South Loop for Wintrust Arena events is angering local businesses. The corner of the arena can be seen at left. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Dowell argues constituents had plenty of notice. Residents were issued new permits and guest passes this summer, and businesses instructed to come to the alderman’s office whenever they need parking passes.

“We’ve been fielding these kinds of concerns the last three weeks,” Dowell said.

“This is a new arena in our community. We are not sure how this is going to pan out. I don’t know what changes we’re going to have to make for the business community until we have a better sense of how the Wintrust Arena is going to function over time,” she said. “The reason these restrictions apply to streets with businesses on them is because we’re trying to ensure they have parking available for their customers.”

But that reasoning has had the opposite effect, says Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance President Tina Feldstein. “There’s a saying, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Businesses are saying, ‘Whoa! Wait a minute. Our customers can’t park!'” Feldstein said.

“When the development was proposed, anyone paying attention understood the biggest traffic issue was going to be access, but the city, the departments of transportation and planning, and MPEA, were unwilling to address those issues early on,” she said. “We need a better understanding of what’s going to best serve the community, as opposed to just putting a blanket set of rules out there that turns out to not really be in everyone’s interest.”