Chicago Outdoor Living (and Eating): Sidewalk Cafes, People Spots, and now … the Curbside Cafe


The newest development is the city ordinance permitting a restaurant or bar to annex its parking spaces for outdoor seating in the form of a new curbside cafe.  Today we explore all the options available for hanging out in style on the sidewalk … or right next to it.

We really can’t say enough about the importance of complete streets and making Chicago as pedestrian friendly as possible.  There are a lot of different small interventions that are being tried around the city to make our thoroughfares more habitable for the people who traverse them.

 Sitting on the Sidewalk: Sidewalk Cafes

jolly posh sidwalk cafe
The idea behind a sidewalk cafe is simple – in areas where the sidewalk is wide enough to support it – a local business can enclose part of the sidewalk area and let customers spread out to the space in front of their store for the summer months.  As with everything else, a permit is required and there are regulations to maintain a 6′ clearance of sidewalk between the enclosed “cafe” and any adjacent buildings, street signs, utilities or street furniture.  The perimeter of the cafe is intended to improve the appearance of the neighborhood with live plantings.

Replacing Parking with Parks: People Spots

andersonville people spots

People Spots – or Parklets – transform parking spaces into public space by reclaiming (and enclosing) an area of the street.  Moss has been involved with several People Spots in the past – and we hope to keep on designing them for Chicago.  These temporary structures contain public seating, planters to bring additional green space to the city and a perimeter of protection that separate the people in the spot from the street traffic passing by.

They have been shown to be a boon to local foot traffic and were rated positively by local businesses in a 2014 study by the Metropolitan Planning Council.  Heritage Bicycles was quoted in the study reporting a boom in social media promotions due to all the Instragam photos snapped outside the shop.

People spots work less well when they sit outside traditional restaurants because of confusion over whether they are public space for everyone or private space for restaurant patrons only.  Several spots located on Clark street between Diversey and Wellington suffered from this confusion and didn’t prove much a benefit for the adjacent businesses since there was no permit to serve food or drinks to a people spot.  To mitigate that problem we have … the Curbside Cafe

New Kid on the Block: the Curbside Cafe

curbside cafe comparison

The newest way to dine outside in Chicago is the Curbside Cafe.  Basically, it is a People Spot associated with a particular restaurant or bar which works like a sidewalk cafe in the street.  The first two proposed Curbside Cafe projects will actually be former people spots repurposed for private use.  In many ways this is a great program with great potential to improve Chicago street side living.  But, unfortunately, the many constraints on the pilot program are going to limit its effectiveness.

To get a clear understanding of the limits on newest form of adaptable streets, check out this week’s Chicago Reader feature, detailing the complexities of permits for these new curbside cafes, by our friend, Streetsblog editor, John Greenfield.

An eligible restaurant or bar must have a sidewalk no wider than 8′-0″ and the street it would take over needs to be a city designated Pedestrian Street (for whatever that’s worth).  Plus, to quote Greenfield, “while the sports-bar-filled stretch of Clark south of Wrigley Field is a P-street with narrow sidewalks, the ordinance bans the parklets within 1,200 feet of the ballfield.” And … “They’re also forbidden within Chicago’s central business district.”

The cafe can only extend to the width of the building frontage.  And if it would take up an existing parking meter spaces the city has to find a comparable space in the neighborhood to created new metered parking – or the business will have to pay for the lost revenue.

In the end, “just about the only location in the city where it’s practical to install curbside cafes is the two-block stretch of Clark that inspired the ordinance.”

That’s pretty frustrating, but still the idea has potential for improvement if it proves a successful experiment this year.  So let’s all stroll over to Clark and encourage it during the curbside season.

What else is new?

Beyond these official and city wide efforts to promote business adjacent outdoor sitting, there are a few outlier projects that are working to adapt the entire idea of the street.  We’ve already featured the Placemaking project at Lincoln and Southport where the street has been newly marked to keep cars in driving lanes only and extend the sidewalk protection for narrower crosswalk locations.  In that project, new bollards and markers – as well as many buckets of paint – have been used to reclaim areas of paved street for pedestrian access.

pedestrian safe

In Uptown the Argyle Shared Street project has been under construction since last fall and should be complete soon.  Rather than turning sidewalk in to cafe space or transforming a parking space into a park, the shared street concept blurs the boundaries between pedestrian and car space – by actually taking away the curb – in order to encourage every user of the street

The point is – when summer finally comes to Chicago we all want to be out on the sidewalk as much as possible.  So the question remains – how can we claim as much as possible of our collective public space as a pleasant space for people?