Chicago’s Pedestrianized Street Program Remains Trapped in Political Purgatory

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In 2020, Chicago — like many other parts of the country — began pedestrianizing select streets to make room for outdoor dining. This was positioned as a lifeline to keep restaurants open while COVID-19 policies prohibited indoor dining.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed this outdoor dining program, which was clustered around several North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gold Coast, and River North. The mayor’s office argued the program was a success and showcased the city, counteracting the negative conservative rhetoric that framed Chicago as unsafe. Supporters say pedestrianized streets give Chicago’s downtown a European feel and increased morale during the height of the pandemic; it was also an unorthodox move to help draw people back to Downtown Chicago.

Urbanists hoped that the programs could stick around. Supporters including advocates for reducing car traffic hoped the outdoor dining program was the future. A restaurant owner inside Time Out Market Chicago, the food hall along Fulton, says sales were badly hurt last year when the city stopped allowing the food hall to set up seating on the street.

Street parking is difficult in the West Loop and Fulton Market. Pedestrianized streets take away spaces and require the city to pay an impact fee to LAZ Parking, which operates and maintains the city’s parking meters. But that fee isn’t significant, according to one city hall source. The city made up more in exchange for the positive message outdoor dining can have on restaurants and customers.

River North and its outdoor dining program along a three-block stretch on Clark Street between Grand Avenue and Kinzie Street has brought controversy. Block Club Chicago reported the conflict between 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly and Mayor Brandon Johnson. Reilly, whose constituents include restaurants like the Smith, Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, and Havana Grill, blamed Johnson for nixing the program “on behalf of his allies in organized labor.” Reilly later left the door ajar for the program’s return by saying the program is under the mayor’s review.

Reilly stated in a July 2023 newsletter to constituents that the program would not be renewed for 2024 after the October 2023 permit expired, despite the results from a survey shared in Reilly’s April 2023 newsletter showing that 80 percent of respondents favored closing the street.

In May 2023, a group of alderpersons objected to former Mayor Lightfoot’s policy of automatic permit renewals, something Lightfoot’s office installed to speed up processes during the pandemic. In 2022, Reilly raised the issue of aldermanic privilege and opposed a permanent program that would shut down Clark. The city hall source says Reilly’s objections were rooted in his dislike of Lightfoot which superseded any attempt to quickly take action to allow restaurants to make the most out of Chicago’s short warm weather season: “He sank the vote for it,” the source says. Reilly would eventually support an ordinance that brought back outdoor dining after Johnson took office.

Another city council source says alderpersons are well aware of how important the topic is to Reilly, who’s known to frequent Boss Bar, a late-night tavern that benefited from the street dining program. Because of that, they’re reluctant to speak out: “It’s sacred ground to him,” the source says.

Reilly, who claimed on social media that the street closure was his idea, has forged strong ties with River North restaurants, which complicates matters further as opinions from restaurant owners have varied on whether they want the Clark Street program to return. Meanwhile, since the program’s inception in 2022, several neighborhood groups have sent letters to Lightfoot and Johnson’s offices objecting to closing down the streets. Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s, sent a letter in December 2022 detailing how the closure negatively impacted his business. DePorter adds that there are accessibility issues, as well. He mentions that 94-year-old Dutchie Caray, the wife of the restaurant’s namesake, has struggled to navigate the traffic. DePorter also mentions former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, a 98-year-old Chicago native, who also has had trouble getting to the restaurant while Clark has been closed.

Bayless, the city’s most famous living chef — who posed with Mayor Johnson in March to celebrate the city’s proclamation of Rick Bayless Day last month — tells Eater that it’s a complicated topic because downtown businesses haven’t recovered from the pandemic. A lack of Mag Mile shoppers has also hurt River North restaurants.

“Mix that up with the repairs on the Kennedy [Expressway] causing long travel times and the fact that people all around Chicago now say that it’s dangerous to come downtown, and you can see why those of us who are firmly planted in River North are looking for everything we can to boost business,” Bayless writes in a text.

Bayless adds that Johnson believes restaurants will play a big role in reviving downtown.

“Then why not close off the street and create a safe and vital atmosphere to draw people in?” the chef adds: “Will it hurt our business to have the street closed? Probably not much. Would it help our business? I can answer that with a resounding ‘yes.’”

Others share Bayless’s opinion. More than 2,700 people have signed an online petition asking the mayor, Ald. Reilly, and Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Tom Carney to bring back the program.

On the other side is Sam Sanchez, a former chair of the Illinois Restaurant Association (one of his daughters, Korina, is a current board member). Sam Sanchez says the program should end. It was a pandemic lifeline whose time has come, he argues, stating that the program only benefits a handful of restaurants and gives them an unfair advantage while taking away business from other restaurants who have spent money building their own patios and licensed sidewalk patios.

Sanchez doesn’t blame the restaurants along Clark Street that benefit as he says any owner would love additional capacity, but it’s not fair. He points out that Gold Coast restaurants around Mariano Park didn’t push for outdoor dining programs to continue after Springfield restored indoor dining. Restaurants like Gibsons and Tavern on Rush were examples of ethical businesses, ones that didn’t take advantage of government relief that was supposed to be only temporary, he says. Sanchez also mentions Pink Taco, a Mexican bar — part of a chain — that closed in July 2022 after four years in Chicago. Sanchez says restaurants west of Clark Street are hurt because of traffic jams the street closures caused and that Pink Taco, 431 N. Wells Street, was among those impacted.

“We don’t need to shut down the streets when restaurants are hurting post-pandemic and are still trying to recover,” Sanchez says.

He wonders how new businesses, like the upcoming Hawksmoor steakhouse at 500 N. LaSalle, will do if traffic is jammed up. When asked if it would be okay if the program returned for select weekends in River North — the program will return in Lakeview for two weekends, on June 7 and again on July 12 — Sanchez wasn’t moved.

“We have street fests for this, we have Taste of River North for this — we have many festivals where people can enjoy the outdoors,” he says.

As the arrival of spring teases Chicagoans, restaurants are preparing to squeeze every opportunity and dollar out of outdoor dining, and they await the city council’s final decision. Sanchez says the mayor has more important topics to worry about. In the end, the winner will be which side has the best lobbyists, he says.

Havana Grill

8878 South Eastern Avenue, , NV 89123 (702) 932-9310 Visit Website

Frontera Grill

445 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 661-1434 Visit Website

Pink Taco

100 M Street Southeast, , DC 20003 (202) 970-7724 Visit Website

The Smith

400 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 312-5100 Visit Website

Boss Bar

420 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654 (312) 527-1203 Visit Website

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