By Peter Winslow
As Chicago prepared to transition into Phase 4 of its coronavirus reopening framework, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled in late May the “Our Streets” initiative—a bifurcated rescue plan intended to assist hard-hit businesses and provide additional transportation options by converting residential streets and commercial corridors for alternate uses.
The initiative originally detailed six neighborhood-focused pilot programs to increase foot traffic and provide relief to restaurants by temporarily closing streets to expand outdoor dining options.
Since June 26, the two-block stretch of Taylor Street between Ashland Avenue and Loomis Street has served as one of the pilot program’s guinea pigs. The street blockage currently occurs every Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. and all day Saturday and Sunday.
In conjunction with the City, the West Central Association (WCA) has been working alongside the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward) to organize and modify street closures. Ervin did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.
Confusion remains over how long the Taylor Street closures will continue.
According to a statement on the WCA’s website, the pilot was set to last through July 26, despite some conflicting street signs stating no parking will be allowed on Taylor during the weekends between June 26 to October 31.
Officials approved weekend closures for up to 180 days, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation, which will leave future decision making to the organizing chamber of commerce—the WCA—to request continuance or termination dates.
“It is a running pilot project, and we are making adjustments on the fly for the group as a whole, taking it on a week by week basis,” said Armando Chacon, president of the WCA.
“Little Italy restaurant owners participate in two-week increments and recently decided to keep the program going through July,” said LICNA in a statement. “LICNA supports the decision of the Little Italy restaurant owners. This program is designed to help them. It is ultimately their decision on whether to continue.”
Some businesses suffer
Although the pilot program originated in good intentions to stimulate local economies while adhering to public health guidelines, some business owners are not happy, as blocked streets can disrupt businesses already hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone thought it was going to be a good idea, but we realized there weren’t that many people walking around or parking,” said Frank Di Cosola of Conte Di Savoia. “They started closing the street a little later on Friday, which helped a little bit. I am really wondering where these people are going to come from.”
Officials originally set weekend closures to begin on Fridays at 9 a.m., but after business owners pushed back, they changed the start time to 4 p.m.
“Even though it’s only two blocks, some of our older patients are struggling to walk that distance or find parking,” said Jeffrey Wolszon, DDS, a dentist whose office is on the 1500 block of Taylor. “A lot of them are having to reschedule Friday and Saturday appointments.”
Some Taylor Street business owners are growing concerned about the pilot’s effectiveness and how long they can withstand the lack of weekend street access.
“Nobody asked the other businesses if they had any ideas, and our business is suffering for it,” said Carole Renaldi of Chiarugi Hardware. “We were closed for two months, and now we are cut at the knees.”
Renaldi continues to express dismay that organizing bodies are more interested in restaurants than the needs of other businesses.
“The intention here is to have a positive impact on the businesses and community,” said Chacon. “It’s been a mixed bag, and some businesses have been impacted differently, some better than others. This pilot has been primarily for restaurants, but we want to work with some of the longstanding businesses.”
Some business owners also have criticized the timing, as bars and restaurants now have authorization to operate at 25% indoor capacity with a 50 person maximum.
The lack of street access potentially can limit a restaurant’s ability to fulfill curbside pick-up and take-out orders, which have become many restaurants’ bread and butter, enabling them to keep financially viable.
“We want to create as many opportunities as possible for restaurants to increase their outdoor capacity as we continue to operate under reduced indoor capacities,” said Hali Levandoski, a City spokeswoman. “We know full well that 25% capacity for indoor dining will be difficult for some restaurants, and as such, we are doing everything within our power to ensure that businesses are able to operate with more capacity while also providing safe dining options for customers.”
Manny Espinoza, co-owner of De Pasada restaurant, hopes the program will last well into autumn, as he said he has not experienced much short-term success.
“I think the program needs more marketing, and it could be nice if the City would help with that,” said Espinoza. “I think the program started at the wrong time. Only a few places are currently setting up outdoor areas, plus we had bad luck with the heat and storms, and some places were closed during the Fourth of July weekend. But I think if we give it some time, it will get better.”
The involvement of the WCA surprised some in the Taylor Street/Near West Side area, as they considered the group a West Loop organization. According to Chacon, Little Italy and Taylor Street actually have been within the jurisdictional boundaries of the WCA since the inception of the chamber in 1918.
The University Village Association (UVA), founded in 1981, was the Taylor Street/Near West Side organization the City actually recognized for decades as the group representing the area, but the UVA disbanded about three years ago.
Chacon said the WCA had a “good working relationship” with the UVA. Since the UVA disbanded, the WCA began to take a more active role in the Taylor Street/Near West Side community, Chacon noted.
“With the UVA gone and us being a delegate agency, we had the opportunity to help the initiative,” said Chacon. “Before we did anything we reached out to LICNA, and we look forward to working with them for years to come. We are much more invested with the collaborative approach.”
To reach the West Central Association, visit www.wcachicago.org/ or call (312) 902-4922. For LICNA, log on to www.licna.org/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the Mayor’s Office, visit www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/mayor.html.