WICKER PARK — A zoning change request for a building in the heart of Wicker Park's Milwaukee Avenue bar strip was pulled off the agenda of a City Council subcommittee Tuesday to ensure the building's tenant, The Crocodile, agrees to maintain food sales.
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said Monday evening that the request for the zoning change at 1540 N. Milwaukee Ave. was pulled until the owners agree that 25 percent of all sales will come from food.
In late May, representatives from The Crocodile spoke with members of the Wicker Park Committee about plans to change the four-story building's zoning from a shopping district to a commercial area.
The zoning change — which was scheduled to be heard in a City Council subcommittee in May but was deferred to allow for input from the neighborhood group — would have been the first step for the bar owners in applying for a tavern license, since the existing zoning does not allow a tavern on the premises.
Currently, The Crocodile, located just south of the Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues intersection, has an incidental liquor license, which is reserved for restaurants in which primary sales come from food rather than alcohol.
The city requires any establishment that has alcohol sales as its main source of business have a tavern license.
A popular nightlife spot known for its DJ music and a basement dance floor, Crocodile opened in 2008 and promotes cheap drinks, free pizza and $3 paninis on its website, and offers an "all-you-care-to-eat" weekend brunch buffet.
The lounge's extensive drink menu includes draft and bottled beers as well as concoctions such as "Crocbowls'' that contain juices and rums.
Richard Kruse, an attorney for the owners of The Crocodile and its landlord, said his clients' food-to-liquor sales ratio "is in the ballpark of 60-40" and they "want to get a tavern license with an accessory food service where food is incidental" to alcohol sales.
Ed Tamminga and other members of the Wicker Park Committee are calling upon the bar's management to comply with a plan of operation that would make The Crocodile commit to a 25 percent minimum of food sales.
On Monday, Moreno issued the following statement: "I believe having 25 percent food offerings is reasonable. We are working with the owner to have him comply."
In a May meeting, members of the Wicker Park Committee voted 9-6 in support of the zoning change, but the group's blessing came with two conditions: that The Crocodile would not apply for late-night liquor license and, secondly, that food sales would constitute a minimum of 25 percent of gross sales.
Raymond Valadez, a spokesman for Moreno, said Monday that the bar owners agreed to not apply for a late hour license.
Around 5 p.m. Monday, Valadez said that the zoning request is being deferred and taken off Tuesday's agenda because an agreement has not been made about the bar committing to a minimum of 25 percent food sales.
Tamminga called the commercial zoning "pretty generous."
"The [Wicker Park Committee] wants to avoid a trend on Milwaukee Avenue toward commercial licenses that allow the proliferation of bars. Restaurants are one thing, C-zoned bars are a different animal," Tamminga said.
According to a city zoning map, the 1500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue is primarily zoned as a community shopping district, with only two buildings with commercial zoning: 1566 N. Milwaukee Ave., which houses the shuttered Empire Liquors and 1565 N. Milwaukee Ave., home to The Flat Iron Bar.
Craig Norris, a member of the Wicker Park Committee, said he "casually walked by [Crocodile] on Sunday at around 4 p.m. and saw around six tables of people."
Norris said he "did not observe any food being consumed or on any tables."
Teddy Varndell, president of the Wicker Park Committee, expressed concerns about competition.
Saying his comments represent only his own opinion and not those of the Wicker Park Committee, Varndell said he believes existing businesses neighboring The Crocodile will "be disadvantaged when competing with an entity that no longer has to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the food business and can now sling cheap booze with abandon."
According to Tamminga, a letter from the neighborhood group to Moreno requesting that the matter be deferred or canceled until The Crocodile can commit to 25 percent food sales was emailed Wednesday and hand-delivered to Moreno's office Friday.
Tamminga said the letter was prompted by an email from Kruse last week indicating that his clients "can't live with the 25" percent food sales but agree to maintain the current level of food offerings.
The Crocodile is owned by New York resident John McGillion, who leaves day-to-day managing operations to Redek Hawryszcuzk. McGillion, Hawryszcuzk and building owner Mariuz Szpyrka, who lives in Florida, could not be reached for comment.