CHICAGO -- An outdoor dining program that proved to be a lifesaver for Chicago restaurants and bars during the darkest days of the pandemic would be made permanent - and expanded into the curb lane - under a mayoral plan proposed Wednesday.
Last year, the City Council agreed to extend - until Dec. 31, 2022 - a program that had allowed 500 restaurants and bars to place tables on sidewalks, in private parking lots and in the street to serve patrons skittish about dining and drinking indoors.
The program was launched in May 2020, when indoor dining was still prohibited in Illinois. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was trying to make outdoor dining more lucrative by allowing restaurants with sidewalk café permits to set up even more tables.
She started by allowing six commercial corridors to be closed to traffic during designated lunch and dinner hours. Expanded outdoor seating was then offered to bars so long as they had a "food partner" that would deliver food to outdoor drinking customers.
The city ultimately issued hundreds of permits - a "vital lifeline" to as many as 700 different restaurants and bars. At the time, Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi vowed to use lessons learned in the neighborhoods to come up with a permanent program.
The ordinance Lightfoot introduced Wednesday would fulfill that vow in this city of foodies.
"Making the expanded outdoor dining program permanent will turn what was once a lifeline into long-term assistance and result in the continuation and creation of inviting dining spaces throughout our neighborhoods," Lightfoot said.
"Many restaurateurs took advantage of the opportunity. ... They got very creative. ... We want to make sure that we continue to do everything we can to help the hospitality industry regain its footing and exceed pre-pandemic levels. This is another important step in that direction."
Lightfoot thanked the untold number of restaurant owners who gave the city "tremendous feedback ... about what worked" and "what the challenges were."
If the Council approves the new program, the Chicago Department of Transportation will establish an "outdoor dining street permit" valid from May 1 through Oct. 31.
The new permit would allow restaurants, bars and so-called "consumption on premises incidental activity liquor" license holders to "expand operations into the street" while also setting up tables in curb lanes "where the adjacent sidewalk is not wide enough to accommodate a sidewalk café."
Full street closures would continue to be allowed for groups of "three or more" businesses.
The curb lane - "that space between the travel lane and the curb itself," Biagi said - will now be used for more tables.
That's an improvement over extra sidewalk tables that forced pedestrians off the sidewalk and into the curb lane, she explained.
"We recognize that we can do better," she said. "So what we are doing ... is enabling the curb lane to be used for the dining to make sure we still have sidewalk access. We want pedestrians and people in wheelchairs and people with strollers - we want you on the sidewalk. This will be a huge improvement."
Illinois Restaurant Association President and CEO Sam Toia said using the curb lane paves the way for "hundreds" more tables, improving the bottom line for restaurants still struggling with rising food prices, higher wages and an employee shortage.
"They did a little pilot program like this in Lake View on Broadway. ... You can have your sidewalk, then a few more tables out to the parking lane. More tables means more sales for independent restaurants," Toia said.
"You can always improve on stuff. But we've been very, very happy with the outdoor dining. It was a lifesaver during the pandemic. ... If we didn't have that, we would have been in as bad a situation as the restaurant community was in New York and Los Angeles."
Crime comments by McDonald's CEO? Lightfoot's not lovin' it
At a news conference after Wednesday's Council meeting, Lightfoot made no effort to hide her disenchantment with McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski, who made headlines with a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, in which he questioned whether the city had a clear plan to combat violent crime.
"What would have been helpful is for the McDonald's CEO to educate himself before he spoke," Lightfoot said, apparently referring to recent reductions in shootings and homicides.
Future of LaSalle in Loop includes housing, mayor says
Also on Wednesday, Lightfoot said she's preparing to unveil a plan to "re-imagine" Chicago's iconic LaSalle Street corridor and convert some of those historic buildings into affordable housing, perhaps with help from public subsidies.
"LaSalle Street is an important, iconic, historic stretch of the Central Business District. There has been a lot of movement with law firms and banks moving to other locations. We want to just make sure that that stretch - really from the Board of Trade to Wacker - remains vibrant," the mayor said.
"The Google announcement, which is the largest corporate expansion in downtown, I think, in the history of our city ... gives us a real opportunity to rethink the vision for LaSalle Street so we support those existing businesses but also re-imagine the opportunities for some of those historic buildings."
With Google buying and occupying a renovated Thompson Center, Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox told the Sun-Times recently he believes the future of the LaSalle Street corridor in the Loop lies in moving that iconic street "from a mono-culture" of offices into a "mixed-use corridor" where people actually live.
"I actually believe that is integral to the future of LaSalle and that many of the owners of these buildings that are seeing vacancies are seriously starting to look at what it would mean to make their buildings mixed-use," Cox told the Sun-Times a few weeks ago.
"You have job anchors like the state. New technology anchors like Google. And people could actually live within a 15-minute walk of their work in one of these beautiful historic buildings. The city is going to work mightily to try to find a way to make that feasible for current owners."
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire - Copyright Chicago Sun-Times 2022.)