LAKEVIEW — There was one key flaw with the people spots on North Clark Street: They didn't have a lot of people using them.
"Just because you build it and you promote it and make it look nice, people don't naturally go there," said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce. "You need more to bring them in."
Perhaps food and beer?
The City Council approved new rules in January allowing restaurants to open curbside cafes in Chicago under a two-year pilot program. And although it took a while for the proverbial fish to bite, Lakeview now has the first curbside cafes in the city.
El Nuevo Mexicano Restaurant, 2914 N. Clark St., refurbished its former people spot into one of the curbside cafes. The two are formatted similarly, requiring a raised platform with fixed boundaries, making for an ideal (and thrifty) makeover.
El Nuevo Mexicano is one of two Clark Street restaurants to open a curbside cafe, a new alternative to sidewalk cafes in the city. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
The second cafe is surrounded by sky blue planters in front of Duke of Perth, 2913 N. Clark St.
Both restaurants can serve food and alcohol to customers seated in the curbside cafes, just like sidewalk cafes around the city. The curbside cafes are designed for narrower streets where a sidewalk cafe would interrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Restaurants pay a $600 application fee for both cafes, but those with curbside cafes must reimburse any lost parking fees to the city's LAZ parking-meter firm. That, coupled with a costly platform, was enough for some businesses to balk.
Luckily for Clark Street, that's not often a problem, said Colin Cameron, owner of Duke of Perth. Car traffic has declined significantly since the pub opened in 1989, freeing up space for the curbside cafes without costing restaurants too much in the lost parking meter revenue.
In the three weeks since the cafes opened on Clark Street, Cameron said they've improved the look of the street, and he hopes the project will "bring back vibrancy" to the corridor.
44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney (second from right) joined members of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce in celebrating the first curbside cafes in Chicago. [Provided/Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce]
While he hasn't noticed an increase in business, Cameron said customers enjoy sitting in the cafe while they wait for a table to open up on Duke of Perth's backyard patio. It also frees up more outdoor seating — a precious commodity during Chicago summers.
"I like the concept, I do," Cameron said. "I like the way it looks, but it's still new. It takes time."
The section of Clark from Belmont Avenue to Diversey Parkway has been due for a face-lift for years. The curbside cafes are a positive, if slightly makeshift way to increase walkability in the meantime, Martino said.
Since the late 1990s, streetscape projects have transformed Lakeview thoroughfares, from Halsted Street in Boystown and along Broadway, Lakeview East's other major road.
The North Clark Street Strategic Plan calls for expanded sidewalks, storefront and building improvements and visual embellishments as a way to encourage development.
While the Clark Street corridor funding remains on hold, Martino said officials are doing what they can to strengthen the street's vitality. The chamber and the Chicago Department of Transportation are trying to figure out how to hang planters on light poles formerly thought to be too weak to bear more weight.
"When you walk down Broadway or Halsted or Southport, you see people dining, activity out in the public way," she said. "Obviously we'd like to one day have a permanent solution where you don't have to have these curbside cafes in the street forever."
The chamber envisions curbless sidewalks and designated bicycle lanes, but changing a street design costs millions. In the meantime, Martino said she's "really excited about the opportunity to measure the results of how this test pilot goes."
Already there are signs of development: Roots Pizza will move into the former Bucca di Beppo after a long vacancy. Newcomers Stan's Donuts, Panz, Snap Kitchen and Starbucks Coffee have perked up the intersection at Clark, Broadway and Diversey.
"We're seeing changes on Clark, and the curbside cafes bring a character to the neighborhood," Martino said. "Clark is a great street, and I think they're going to show more vitality of the corridor."
Contributing: Ted Cox
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