CITY HALL — A new city concept for al fresco dining has been literally left at the curb so far.
Curbside cafes, which grew out of Chicago's so-called people spots that seek to reclaim space on city streets, have seen few signs of interest — even though they were approved by the City Council in January.
More than 400 restaurants and shops applied for permission to open sidewalk cafes on Wednesday alone in the council's Transportation Committee. Yet, according to staffers for Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), committee chairman, no restaurant has yet applied to open a curbside cafe.
Ted Cox talks about the idea of restaurants putting tables in the street.
The difference has much to do with the cost of investment.
With a $600 application and some simple border fencing, a restaurant can open a sidewalk cafe outside its doors if it's in an area wide enough to allow pedestrians to pass.
Restaurants that don't have room on the sidewalk outside for a sidewalk cafe now have the option of adding a curbside cafe offering outdoor dining in the street nearby. But like people spots, the council has mandated that they be built on platforms with fixed boundaries — which could cost $10,000, some said.
In addition, while the merchant pays the same $600 fee to the city, it is also responsible for reimbursing the city's LAZ parking-meter firm for any revenue lost with the blocked-out parking spots — which could cost in the thousands of dollars depending on the neighborhood the cafe is located in and what the parking rates are.
"I'm intrigued by the concept," said Ald. John Arena (45th), who backed the proposal in January as a potential shot in the arm for his Six Corners area at Milwaukee and Cicero avenues and Irving Park Road. Yet, while one local merchant was interested this spring, the costs have thus far proved prohibitive.
"I don't know if it's all the way thought through or fully baked," he added.
The season for curbside cafes is also shorter: May through September, compared with March through November for sidewalk cafes.
"You're not able to get what a sidewalk-cafe owner can get for $600," Arena said, adding that the merchant he had considering the idea estimated conservatively that the platform alone would cost $10,000. "There might be other areas that are a little more lucrative for that, that might be able to swallow that cost of entry in terms of testing it out and seeing what works."
Indeed there are. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), a lead sponsor of January's ordinance, said his North Side ward could see two.
"We've got a couple coming through on Clark Street" in Lakeview, he said: Duke of Perth, 2913 N. Clark St.; and El Nuevo Mexicano, across the street at 2914 N. Clark St.
According to Tunney, those locations fit two of the guiding concepts behind the idea: the sidewalks there are narrow, not allowing the space for a sidewalk cafe, and they're on a relatively sleepy block, by Lakeview standards, that has been resistant to development.
"I think it's a way for restaurants that don't have an opportunity for a sidewalk cafe to really see if it would make economic sense," Tunney said. "We think the area needs a little jump start."
He's also engaged in negotiations to minimize the costs in lost parking revenue.
"We're trying to figure it out with LAZ," Tunney said. "We've done people spots before." He's trying to sell the firm on the benefits of at least letting the concept get off the ground to see if it can fly, while engaged in horse trading on parking spaces and loading zones. "It's really, unfortunately, kind of a game," he added.
Beale, likewise, said it was still early in the process and curbside cafes might catch on. "At some point," he said, "you might get a few."
Yet Arena believes the costs are too high for a pilot program. "What if it doesn't work out?" Arena said. "Then you've got this platform that you've built and nothing to do with it.
"You're testing a concept that is inherently more expensive than a sidewalk cafe. There's a high bar at the point of entry," he added, before concluding, "It'll be a long time before we see them out by us."
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