Numerous unanswered questions — costs, scheduling, participation and logistics among them — are delaying a decision on whether to close 53rd Street to facilitate outdoor dining.
For example, procuring barricades and security to temporarily close 53rd Street to traffic would be the responsibility of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.
Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) have been meeting with chamber head Wallace Goode and local business owners to discuss the proposal, including one yesterday and another scheduled tomorrow afternoon.
Amy Srodon with University of Chicago has said the school's Commercial Real Estate Operations will not fund the barriers, and the South East Chicago Commission (SECC) has not committed to contributing.
With the exception of liquor licenses, there are no fees associated with closing streets and outdoor dining. Restaurants with liquor licenses would have to get another license to serve alcohol outside.
“City departments are working closely with chambers, SSAs and business service organizations throughout the city to offer assistance on their applications to obtain necessary permits to participate in the Expanded Outdoor Dining pilot project which reimagines how to use parts of Chicago's public way to support the recovery of the restaurant industry while also allowing for increased social distancing that complies with public health guidance,” said Michael Claffey, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman, in an email.
Any infrastructure the businesses want and need in order to implement the program, currently operating in six pilot areas, is the responsibility of the local chamber of commerce and special service area (SSA) — in the local case, Downtown Hyde Park.
Diane Burnham, executive director of the SECC, Downtown Hyde Park’s service provider, said in an email that it is too early to tell how the barricades and security would be funded. She said the SSA will be launching something soon to support Hyde Park’s reopening.
In a Wednesday interview, Goode said the Hyde Park Chamber alone does not have the budget to close 53rd Street to vehicle traffic between Lake Park and Woodlawn avenues. At the Tuesday meeting, the question arose whether to use concrete Jersey barriers or Type III barricades, typically used for road construction work.
The chamber has 350 members, and the 32 restaurants that line the six blocks that would be closed to facilitate outdoor dining are not all chamber members. With a share of the cost falling to individual businesses, Goode said the question is whether the closure would help business or whether it would cause additional economic stress.
"The city has those kinds of barriers, and that would be something, if we decide to go in this direction, that is worth exploring," Goode said. "And if not, the cost of renting them raises a question."
He added that he is concerned if Type III barriers would be enough to protect pedestrians on an open street from wayward or ill-intentioned motorists. While some restaurants have floated only closing the street on weekends, Jersey barriers cannot be easily removed once installed.
Furthermore, restaurants will have to weigh the cost of procuring and setting up tables, chairs and umbrellas. and whether the chamber will have to pay the operator of Chicago's parking meters for lost revenue if street parking closes.
"Unless all the mitigating circumstances and moving factors are factored in, nobody has an idea how much this will cost," Goode said. "I think restaurants will have difficulty saying 'we're in' unless somebody has a clear understanding how much they have to be in for, and determining how many restaurants are involved will help determine what the division of the cost could be. And we don't have the answers to those questions at the moment."
"We're spending a lot of time on this, and what if (only) three restaurants are interested?" he asked. "I'd rather work with those three restaurants and help them figure out a way of expanding their seating than expand to the entire 53rd Street corridor."
At the Tuesday meeting, local restaurant representatives were interested in closing the street but expressed concern about the money necessary to do this.
"I know on 53rd Street, the sidewalk space is not much. If we were to put tables out there, you'd probably be looking at three tables, in order to keep social distancing laws in place," said Gianni Colamussi of the Valois Cafeteria, 1518 E. 53rd St. "I like the idea of blocking roads off, as I do see that more, and blocking parking lots off."
Acknowledging that the pilot programs are beginning elsewhere in the city, he added, "I think it's obviously a good idea for restaurants just for the simple fact that people will have that normalcy, and if they see that they can have that normalcy in other places, that's where they're going to go, and it will take business away from Hyde Park and 53rd Street.”
Hairston asked whether retailers on 53rd Street also should contribute to fund the barricades. With social distancing still in effect, she cautioned against envisioning closures akin to the many festivals that typically take place in the area.
"I think everybody is just trying to figure out what makes good business sense at this point. And since everybody has been impacted, does it make sense to add on all these other expenses when we're just trying to get up and running again?" she asked. "Those that already have space and want to utilize space, they can. Those that want to get space, I think that's good.”
Colamussi again expressed his desire to expand outdoor seating outside of Valois. Every day, he said he gets more calls asking whether they can eat at the cafeteria again.
"If we get some numbers and see what each individual financial responsibility is going to be, then we can take that into the decision," he said. "I don't think anyone's looking for a festival-type of a set-up. I think we're just trying to set ourselves up basically not to fail through these times. These are hard times; it's not going away. It's going to be here all summer."