CHICAGO — Hundreds of Chicago restaurants got permits for outdoor dining as a lifeline to stay afloat during the pandemic. Those options could remain if City Council passes a new ordinance.
On the first night of fall in River North, the outdoor dining on Clark Street shows no sign of cooling off.
“I think it kept us all alive for a while and you could be outside and now people have gotten used to it and really like it,” said Rive North resident Chad Chmielowicz.
What was a temporary tool to alleviate the pinch of pandemic restrictions – could soon become a city fixture. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing a new ordinance that would make outdoor dining like this permanent from May through October every year.
“I think it maybe is the next evolution. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and I think this is the definition of building community,” said Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar co-owner Jon Young.
It’s a welcome idea for Jon Young, whose Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar has been a Roscoe Village staple for nearly two decades. Two years ago, he and others on his block created a weekend ‘Streetery’ to stay in business.
“Looking back on that, we would never have made it through 2020 without that extra parcel of safe outdoor dining that frankly attracted people to come and support us,” Young said.
In the summers since – it’s only grown. He said the ‘Streetery’ last season drew an estimated 10 thousand new people to the neighborhood.
“I think it will definitely help us build business,” Young said. “Having an event like that just beyond having more seating on a sidewalk. Those are completely two different animals.”
Like in the temporary version, under the proposed ordinance, three or more restaurants together could receive a permit from the Chicago Department of Transportation for a full street closure. In an effort to improve safety, some single restaurants would be allowed to operate their outdoor dining between traffic lanes and the sidewalk.
“We recognize that we can do better and so what we’re doing as part of this outdoor dining ordinance is enabling the curb lane to be used for that dining to make sure we still have that sidewalk access,” said CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi. “We want pedestrians and people who are in wheelchairs. We want you on the sidewalk, so this will be a huge improvement and it activates part of the street that we weren’t using before.”
Many hope to transform a sign of the times into a mainstay.
“Anytime we’re going out with friends or people or friends are in town, we always come down here and walk around,” Chmielowicz said. “It’s just a cool scene.”