Why are Chicago’s sidewalk cafes all on the North Side? Part 1

Why are Chicago’s sidewalk cafes all on the North Side? Part 1

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(Photo, interactive illustration by Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)
Residents on the city’s South and West Sides have few options available for outdoor socializing — and that’s partially by design.

Whenever Chicago shakes off winter, the temperature isn’t the only quality of life indicator on the upswing. It’s as though city-goers have license to be more social and especially so when it comes to eating. It’s not just that neighbors will barbeque together or that families will flock to parks for picnics; summer opens up the opportunity to socialize with friends over wine, cafe fare or Thai food while sitting on city sidewalks.

On a recent afternoon, we caught diners just at restaurants started serving on sidewalks.

“I wanted to eat outside, it’s the first warm day of spring. It’s nice to come outside, eat and people-watch,” said 33-year-old Mike Capasso.

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)

We caught Capasso outside with his friends at Lady Gregory’s, an Irish restaurant in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, where patrons can take advantage of sidewalk cafes that stretch along blocks of North Clark Street’s manicured sidewalks.

But this is not a scene you can spot in all parts of the city.

WBEZ compiled data about where City Hall issues sidewalk cafe permits that allow eateries to serve customers on sidewalks. Our analysis paints a disparate picture of Chicago’s sidewalk dining and drinking spots. It may not surprise many longtime city-goers that such permits are concentrated on the North Side. But what may surprise some is just how uneven the spread really is: There’s quite literally no comparison with communities on the South and West Sides, as those parts of town have no permits with which to compare.

Next week, we’ll provide an account of the economic and social consequences of this mismatch. For now, we lay out where Chicago’s cafe permits are issued, where they are glaringly absent, and how the city’s outdoor dining landscape got this way.

Setting up shop outside

Aside from weather, there are three things that make sidewalk dining in Chicago possible. The first is a permit for a sidewalk cafe, which is not to be confused with an outdoor patio. The latter is on the owner’s property, but if you’re eating at a sidewalk cafe, technically you’re eating on public property. That’s even the case if your establishment seats you on the sidewalk after asking if you want to dine “on the patio.”

1. Getting a sidewalk cafe

A sidewalk cafe requires a permit to use ostensibly public space for a business purpose. The sidewalk cafes allow restaurants and coffee shops to set up tables and chairs in front of their businesses, provided they adhere to certain rules.

Maureen Martino is the executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, which represents many local bars and restaurants. She says many chamber members utilize sidewalk cafes.

“When spring comes out and you see the first sidewalk cafe go up, you like to be in a place not usually seen during the year,” she said. “It creates a people spot, a spot where people go to socialize.”

Unlike a license distributed by a City Hall department, a sidewalk cafe permit is approved by City Council, with the permit’s sponsor being that of a business owner’s alderman.

The approval process is usually expedited; however, the city limits the sidewalk cafes’ specs, which can range from the height of a table to spacing between a building and sidewalk.

“The city does set guidelines on how your sidewalk cafe should be constructed,” Martino said. “They mandate that you have flowers.”

Indeed, according to Chicago’s 2013, Sidewalk cafe application, “at least 50% of the boundary must be covered with live plants.”

However, it’s that spacing that may affect where a cafe can go, because the city requires that pedestrians be allowed a minimum of six feet of walk space. The rest, the code says, should allow enough space for diners, especially those with disabilities access to the tables.

This means that you can’t place a cafe on a nine-foot sidewalk, but you can place one on a sidewalk that’s been widened. Some of these are widened to accommodate such seating. And that widening, it turns out, is not even across the city, either.

2. Streetscapes lay a foundation

Chicago’s official motto, embossed on its corporate seal is “urbs in horto,” a Latin phrase which means city in a garden.

(WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)
(WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)

Under the stewardship of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago expanded the number streetscapes. These urban renewal projects were implemented by the Chicago Department of Transportation, but bankrolled from sources which include (but were not limited to) city, state and federal transportation funds. At times, these sources included what’s known as tax increment financing.

According to 2003 guidelines issued by Daley’s administration, streetscapes are meant to “encourage the enhancement and revitalization of commercial areas in Chicago.”

That guideline is still adhered to, notably by Gabe Klein, the current commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Transportation.

“We want to have a robust economy, we want to have a safe city and we want to have a city that people can feel like they can move around safely as pedestrian, cyclists, transit users or automobile users and the way we design our streets is absolutely key to making that happen,” said Klein.

Klein’s department works with community groups, businesses, builders and aldermen to to use Chicago streets, sidewalks and alleys as development tools.

Streetscape projects can vary dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. Projects can include, but are not limited to: the repavement of streets, the replacement and widening of sidewalks, installation of new street lamps, ornamental lighting, flower beds, sidewalk planters, viaduct improvements, vaulted sidewalks, bike lanes, bus stops, and benches. Streetscaping can even involve removal of a traffic lane. The projects sometimes last years and several rollouts can span a decade or so.

One effect of a streetscape — not lost upon developers and planners — is that wider, more accommodating sidewalks are amenable to sidewalk cafes. Planners often will draw in cafes on renderings of streetscape projects when pitching them to the public.

Sidewalk cafes must maintain a distance between city structures such as trees and parking meters, with enough space for pedestrians to pass. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
(WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
Sidewalk cafes must maintain a distance between city structures such as trees and parking meters, with enough space for pedestrians to pass.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act request with CDOT, WBEZ was able to obtain a list and description of streetscape projects spanning back to 1996.  From 1996-2012, there were roughly 127 individual streetscapes. In some cases, streetscapes were done in already flourishing areas in Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and Andersonville.

When asked about the concentration of sidewalk cafes on the North Side, Klein said a streetscape can be a factor.

“One of the things we look at definitely look at is how to activate public space,” he said.

“A streetscape then allows for more frontage for a restaurant might mean that restaurant might move in there, which means they might have an outdoor patio, which means that you might have more eyes on the street. Decorative lighting might make it more pleasant to be out there in the street. Bump-outs [portions of sidewalk that jut into the street] and taking a lane of traffic away, may slow the cars down so that people feel more comfortable sitting outside. It feels more like a neighborhood street or boulevard instead of a highway.”

3. Pedestrian zones maintain flow of customers

Businesses with sidewalk cafes require a certain threshold of foot traffic to work effectively. Business owners will say that large crowds will spur larger crowds, which increases the appeal for restaurant-goers — especially those in the mood to do some people-watching.

Sidewalk cafes must maintain a distance between city structures such as trees and parking meters, with enough space for pedestrians to pass. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
(WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
Pedestrian streets can increase the flow of customers, but businesses must stay within standards.

By default, all licensed restaurants in Chicago lay in areas zoned for business or commercial use, but there’s another zoning classification that explains where sidewalk cafes land across the city: so-called “pedestrian streets.”

According to Chicago’s Zoning and Land Use Ordinance, pedestrian street regulations are “intended to preserve and enhance the character of streets and intersections that are widely recognized as Chicago’s best examples of pedestrian-oriented shopping districts.”

The ordinance goes on to state that the “regulations are intended to promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort.”

The city’s pedestrian streets, or p-streets, were mapped out by Chicago transportation advocate chi.streetsblog.org writer Steven Vance who created the map with Azad Amir-Ghassemi and Bill Vassilakis. We’ve included the maps in our analysis of cafes.

A pedestrian street must have a “high concentration of existing stores and restaurants” and have a “continuous pattern of buildings that are abutting or very close to the sidewalk.”

The regulations go on to stipulate that a p-street should have businesses with storefront windows and there should be few vacant stores. In other words, a p-street must already have a vibrant economic scene before receiving this designation. But when it does, the regulations are similar to those of a condo board’s, requiring that new businesses abide by standards that can include the size of building entrances, facades and windows.

If you want to account for sidewalk cafes’ thriving North Side presence, as well as their dearth on the South and West Sides, p-streets have an impact.

Consider that a p-street designation effectively shuts out businesses and structures commonly found on the South and West Side arterial streets: strip malls, drive-through facilities, gas stations, residential storage warehouses, car washes and car sales lots. The designation also shuts out big-box retailers, which several South Side aldermen have actively sought to attract. In effect, the regulations make aldermen choose one path of economic development or the other.

Chicago has nearly 50 streets and intersections designated as pedestrian streets. About 10 of those are on the South Side. None exist on the far West Side. And the rest are located on the North and Northwest Sides.

The last lines of the p-streets regulations state that “the following uses are encouraged on lots abutting pedestrian streets”: sidewalk cafes and outdoor eating areas and outdoor display of produce, flowers and plants.

Where are Chicago’s outdoor venues?

Permits by Community Area 2006-2012
Number of rows to show:


Our map of sidewalk cafe permits data shows where Chicago’s outdoor hubs lay as of last summer, but we also obtained data (from 2006 and on) that suggest where the number of cafes is growing.

Chicago’s Near North Side

  • This community area, just north of the Loop, is the sidewalk cafe stronghold. It includes parts of the city’s Michigan Avenue shopping district, as well as Streeterville and the Gold Coast. In 2012, Chicago’s Near North Side had 223 sidewalk cafes — a 33.5 percent increase from 2006, when that community had just 167.


  • In 2012, the Lakeview community area came in a strong second with 151 sidewalk cafes — an 18.9 percent increase from 2006. That number is not surprising as Lakeview regularly attracts entertainment venues, taverns and restaurants. It’s also home to Wrigley Field and Boystown, the largest of the city’s gay bar districts.

  • The data suggest that the rate of growth has slowed in Lakeview, perhaps even that the market is peaking or saturated. But businesses continue to expand northwest.

West Town and Logan Square

  • West Town, which encompasses Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village, saw a 72 percent  increase of sidewalk cafes from 2006-2012.

  • The Near West Side, which includes the West Loop and Little Italy, saw a 92.85% increase, nearly doubling from 42 to 81 sidewalk cafe permits for that same period.

  • Logan Square had an increase of 54.54%, up from 12 permits in 2006, to 34 in 2012.

Where the permits stop … but the story doesn’t

Chicago community areas are not all the same. Some are or were previously industrial zones. Others lack real estate density or have no access to mass transit. Still, restaurants and dining are ubiquitous throughout the city, though sidewalk cafes are not, especially in North and South Lawndale, Washington Park, South Shore, Roseland or Pullman, all of which have no permits.

Even on the North Side, communities like Jefferson Park, Avondale and Albany Park have just one or two permits each.

Permits for 2013 were available by request, but many of them are still pending, and some businesses may wait until the weather is consistently warm before applying for a permit.

Permits are scarce or nonexistent in a few North Side neighborhoods, but not nearly as acute as those on the South and West Sides.

Permits become scarcer west of California Avenue and south of Roosevelt Road, with the exception of clusters at University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus, Pilsen and University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

Next week, we’ll take up what we’ve heard over and over: that these disparities matter when it come to quality of life and economic development.

—Elliott Ramos is a data reporter and Web producer for WBEZ. Email him at eramos@wbez.org or follow at @ChicagoEl.


Streetscape Design Guidelines by Chicago Public Media