Why are Chicago’s sidewalk cafes all on the North Side? Part 2

A look at what’s behind this quality of life issue

June 5, 2013

By Elliott Ramos and Natalie Moore

(WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)
From left, Lauren Flanagan, Elizabeth Perrin and Krista Giuntoli enjoy sandwiches at a sidewalk cafe in Lakeview.

With warm weather securely in hand, Chicagoans are dining out in droves. We don’t know exactly where all this sun-drenched dining is taking place, but we can make a solid case that nearly all of the dining at sidewalk cafes is happening near downtown and in several North Side neighborhoods. How do we know this?

Last week we released the map you see here, which lays out the location of sidewalk cafe permits that existed in 2012. The map and the data that inform it show that sidewalk cafe permits are densely concentrated on Chicago’s North Side, but few exist on the South and West Sides. That post laid out where disparities in cafe permits exist, as well as the regulatory framework governing sidewalk cafes. (We can now add another likely economic factor, one related to public transit.)

Chicago's Sidewalk cafes in 2012
Data analysis and map produced by Elliott Ramos
Source: Chicago Department of Transportation, Chicago Department of Business and Consumer Affairs, Steven Vance, Azad Amir-Ghassemi and Bill Vassilakis (See data: WBEZ Open Socrata)

Our first article received plenty of feedback, a lot of it pressing for an obvious followup: Why do these disparities exist? Does City Hall and the other powers that be make a conscious effort to keep the North Side flush with sun-kissed dining opportunities?

The answer says a lot about the state of economic development across Chicago. But before we dig in, why should we even care?

Chicagoans (and their aldermen) want out

On a Wednesday afternoon in Lakeview, we met a trio of young women dining at the sidewalk café of Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese Sandwich shop on north Broadway.

For one of them, 28-year old Lauren Flanagan, a sidewalk cafe’s plus side is obvious.

“If you’re sitting out on the street, you can watch people as they go past,” she said. “It’s just nicer than being indoors on a day like this, it’ll be stuffy. You feel like you should be outside.”

We told the trio about the gist of our cafe permits map, and all three were surprised to learn that sidewalk dining was so concentrated on the North Side.

Krist Giuntoli, a 20-year-old who lives in Highland Park, asked “Do you think that has a socioeconomic impact?”

Well, Krist Giuntoli, there are many people who are convinced sidewalk cafes can have an impact — alongside restaurants, bars and other outdoor social outlets. And, as we pointed out in our last post, officials engineer (and pay for) streetscaping projects that clear away regulatory hurdles and make all of this activity more likely in the long run.

Philip Ashton, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois at Chicago, has studied economic issues such as food deserts and foreclosures on the city’s South and West Sides.

“I think planners have been really curious about what makes a vibrant public space,” Ashton said. “Like a sidewalk that’s still full of people, some of them sitting outside dining. Those are really attractive spaces for planners.”

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein considers streetscaping part of a city’s economic development toolkit.

“A streetscape can be very catalytic, and a streetscape, and I’ve seen this in Washington D.C., and I’ve seen it here where streetscapes can really foster a lot of growth,” Klein said.

He does, however, caution that they’re not panaceas. (“That’s a lot of pressure to put on a streetscape.”)

Just a few examples would suggest Klein’s caveat is on the mark. Take the example of two significant streetscapes: Auburn Gresham’s 2004 revamp of 79th street, and Bronzeville’s 2002 revamp of 47th Street. Both projects had all the works and fixings (wider sidewalks, new street lamps, etc.), but they occurred in areas pocked by vacant lots and abandoned properties. Economically speaking, neither streetscape has fully delivered. And, incidentally, neither location had a sidewalk cafe in 2012.

But for much of City Hall and City Council, the jury’s out; both are politically invested in streetscaping efforts. Among the proponents: North Side Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th).

“Things happen on streets where there isn’t a lot of development, where there isn’t a lot of business, because you can get away with crime in those areas,” he said. “I think when you have a vibrant neighborhood with a lot of people walking around spending time outside, I think what ends up happening is that neighborhood becomes safer.”

Pewar says he eagerly awaits the completion of a streetscaping project along Lawrence Avenue. And what’s prominently listed in the schematics for that project?

Space for sidewalk cafes.

The aldermanic funnel

As we explained earlier, Chicago aldermen hold the proverbial keys to the sidewalk cafe — it’s up to the local alderman to secure City Council approval. After reading the first part of this story, several commenters suspected foul play; maybe some aldermen, they wrote, are simply denying permits.

That doesn’t seem to be the case.

Calls to several aldermen and their offices suggest it’s rare for permits to be denied. When permits are denied, they said, it’s usually because the permits don’t conform to parameters outlined in city regulations (e.g., not allowing enough space for passersby). Aldermanic staffers and the city’s Department of Business and Consumer Affairs said they work with businesses to be in compliance.

Instead, North Side aldermen simply receive far more requests for sidewalk cafe permits than their counterparts on the South and West Sides. And that, both aldermen and development groups tell us, reflects the relative disparities in economic health across Chicago neighborhoods.

On the South Side, small buds of growth

Hyde Park is an anomaly, with its sprinkling of sidewalk cafes on 53rd Street. Ald. Will Burns (4th) said while many parts of the South Side lost population over the past decade, his area didn’t. He said population gain has led to a surge in recent commerce.

Burns said he’s never rejected a sidewalk permit.

“I want people out on the streets. I want eyes on the street. It makes the community feel more vibrant. I try to facilitate the process when I can. I don’t want to be a hindrance,” Burns said.

Norman Bolden owns an eponymous bistro on East 43rd in the North Kenwood neighborhood. Bolden’s sidewalk cafĂ©, with fare such as cranberry-smoked salmon, Caribbean-style duck and a variety of martinis, is a popular neighborhood attraction. This part of the 4th Ward has less commercial activity than Hyde Park.

Bolden said applying for the permit year after year can be a red-tape worthy headache. But Bolden, who also lives in the community, said having outdoor seating is essential.

“It’s important that the people in this community know that they have the option to experience what the downtown community, what the North Side community are offering. This cafĂ© is an additional reason for people to feel good about themselves and the community,” Bolden said.

True, the South Side did lose population over the last decade or so. But the South Side is the city’s biggest geographic area. There are still neighborhoods full of people for whom non fast-food dining — outdoor or otherwise — isn’t an option.

“I wasn’t really surprised,” said Leana Flowers, concerning conclusions drawn from WBEZ’s cafĂ© map. Flowers chairs the Bronzeville Retail Initiative, which works with the Metropolitan Planning Council, a regional planning and development advocacy group.

“There’s a fundamental need to have these kinds of amenities; you have to have restaurants,” Flowers said. “The North Side has lots of restaurants and you’d expect they’d have [outdoor] cafes. The challenge for us is we need to get more retail on the South Side of Chicago, and that includes restaurants. Then we can address sidewalk cafes.”

Aesthetically pleasing streetscaping — often the first step before a crush of local retail — is tied to Special Service Areas (SSAs.) These local tax districts fund programs such as façade improvements and public way maintenance and beautification. Property owners have to vote to be a SSA for the additional tax. If there isn’t a strong existing business corridor, it’s harder to pull off an SSA.

UIC’s Ashton says that SSAs can help, but there needs to be more.

“A lot of times it’s not just the physical investment, but also business organizations are using SSA or business improvement districts and local chambers of commerce as a way to get businesses more organized to promote themselves,” Ashton said. “So it can be sort of a package deal. And I believe that’s an important tool in the local economic development planners’ toolbox.”

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said three things are needed to make an area sidewalk-café ready: density, safety and retail estate value. He knows parts of his ward lag in those categories.

“As our areas improve and our level of retail escalates and restaurant, we are open to have those cafes. The constituents will demand it. I believe people would take it if it were an option,” said Ervin, who lives in economically starved West Garfield Park. “You need some density and vibrancy. You need factors other than just chairs and tables outside of a restaurant.”

Ervin said streetscaping can provide a corridor a needed facelift.

“A lot of those streetscapings are done with SAA dollars or TIF dollars and some areas on West Side we don’t have access to that money,” Ervin said. “We need more entrepreneurs to come into the community other than a submarine shop or chicken shack. We want to attract the nicer retail.”

Streetscapes not always a silver bullet

And here’s the kernel of an answer to why the spread of Chicago’s sidewalk cafes is so uneven, and skewed to the North Side. If Chicago aldermen are eager to approve sidewalk cafe permits, and there are streetscape projects throughout the city that lay the (literal) foundation for them, then the business environment (informed by location of SSAs and TIF districts) is likely behind the disparity. In other words, there are just too few dollars available from too few businesses to create a critical mass of restaurants that sport sidewalk cafes.

This outcome is not necessarily a good thing for South Siders and West Siders, and it’s one that everyone in the city should consider.

Steven Farber, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah, recently published a study that examined land use and transportation in 42 major U.S. cities. His work looks at how urban space affects how often and how well we interact. The gist is that seemingly small differences in landscape affect our social networks and well-being.

“I think that neighborhoods without those types of opportunities for social contact may not fare as well as neighborhoods that do have these cafes and sidewalks and better streetscapes,” he said.

But Farber isn’t suggesting that Chicago put cafes where they wouldn’t be viable. “I’m not sure that building sidewalk cafes in neighborhoods that don’t seem to be demanding that kind of business infrastructure at the current time is necessarily going to have a huge impact on the neighborhood structure,” he said. “I think that raising socioeconomic status is far more important than providing sidewalk cafes, or at least these things have to come together.”

Still, Farber’s work could provide a little ammunition to South and West Siders who suspect there’s something wrong with the distribution of cafes across the city. And it’s not founded in a easily-dismissed gripe that they have to travel out of their neighborhoods for good food in some warm sunshine.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side bureau reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore. Elliott Ramos is a data reporter and Web producer for WBEZ. Email him at eramos@wbez.org or follow @ChicagoEl.