Restaurants Can Now Get Outdoor Patios Easier. But Some Businesses May Be Left Out.

Employees prepare outdoor seating at the First Sip Cafe on Argyle Street in Uptown on Thursday.
Employees prepare outdoor seating at the First Sip Cafe on Argyle Street in Uptown on Thursday. Elliott Ramos / WBEZ
Employees prepare outdoor seating at the First Sip Cafe on Argyle Street in Uptown on Thursday.
Employees prepare outdoor seating at the First Sip Cafe on Argyle Street in Uptown on Thursday. Elliott Ramos / WBEZ

Restaurants Can Now Get Outdoor Patios Easier. But Some Businesses May Be Left Out.

A new ordinance could make it easier for restaurants to set up outdoor dining during Chicago’s soft reopening.

The ordinance passed the Committee on Transportation and Public Way Thursday would make setting up a sidewalk cafe faster and cheaper. But many South Side businesses may not get the same boost. For years, the North Side got infrastructure dollars to build up vibrant pedestrian friendly sidewalks, while the South Side and West Sides were left out.

Most South Side neighborhoods don’t have outdoor cafes — often because the sidewalk isn’t wide enough. That chokes economic development during normal times, but during the pandemic — cuts off many South Side restaurants from one of their few available sources of income.

Map of Chicago’s Outdoor Dining Scene

Aldermen Michelle Smith (43rd) and Brendan Rielly (2nd) said they also want bars to be able to set up outside. They said restaurants that serve alcohol will have a leg up on bars that don’t serve food; and with newly legalized to-go drinks, outdoor seating will provide a legal way for people to drink outdoors. For now, city officials have declined to allow drinking on newly created “shared streets.”

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection can now approve permits without waiting for the City Council, accelerating a month-long approval process to about a week. The city has cut the price by 75%, reducing the minimum cost from $600 to $150. This also applies to businesses that have already purchased a permit, saving owners hundreds or thousands.

“In addition to the option for sidewalk cafes, businesses with valid Retail Food Establishment Licenses can temporarily expand operations into the street or other private property through the new Expanded Outdoor Dining Permit,” according to a statement from Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which said it has already approved more than 400 sidewalk cafes this year.

Special event liquor licenses for patios — any outdoor space on the businesses’ property — have been extended from 11 to 180 days. Restaurants can also extend cafes beyond their property line to adjacent storefronts with permission from their neighbors.

However, the ordinance doesn’t change the rules on sidewalk width.

Cafes need at least six feet of clearance from the building and one foot from the edge of the curb. That is an American With Disabilities Act requirement, but businesses on the South and West Sides are located in areas that lack the additional sidewalk footage to set up tables.

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) said during a committee meeting that he was concerned about a strip of restaurants on 79th street with minimal sidewalk space. He asked if they could use parking spaces in front of the store.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi told him “they’d look at it together.

“We’re trying to be really flexible here,” she said. “As long as we can get traffic through and emergency vehicles, that’s totally the purpose of having the street option. … Let’s see if we can work something out.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said during the meeting that he was considering closing 18th street to accommodate businesses in Pilsen.

But it’s no accident that South Side neighborhoods need these workarounds. WBEZ found that the city used transportation funds to create “streetscapes” in already flourishing North Side neighborhoods. That construction included widening sidewalks and eliminating traffic lanes.

And in the past, sidewalk cafes were more likely to be approved in areas zoned as “pedestrian streets.”

The p-street designation essentially shuts out businesses and structures common on the South Side such as strip malls, storage warehouses and car washes. P-streets also shut out big box retailers, which South Side aldermen have sought to attract.

The path to economic recovery may literally be too narrow for some.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ.