Chicago, IL

Chicago Mayor Announces $2.3M Awarded to Community Organizations For Outdoor Dining with Most on South and West Sides

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Mayor Lightfoot announces that 15 organizations have been selected to receive funds from Chicago Alfresco, a partnership between CDOT & Choose Chicago, with 75 percent being distributed on the South and West Sides.

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Chicago Alfresco will provide funds to city communities to establish outdoor neighborhood spaces where residents can gather safely gatherTimeout

The damage to restaurant owners due to the pandemic have led them to try to come up with creative ways to remain in business despite being required to keep their doors closed. One way many have attempted to do this, has been through outdoor dining while maintaining social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention strategies. The Chicago Department of Transportation, local chambers of commerce and area officials worked with restaurants to decide which streets could be closed and when street closures would end for various neighborhoods, extending permits whenever possible.

Beginning last summer during the worst of the pandemic, many neighborhoods obtained permission to close down parts of streets on weekends or full time to allow them to place tables in the street for customers to be able to enjoy outdoor dining. Many were allowed to remain open into the fall and winter, and some have continued outdoor service consistency since that time. Heaters and firepits were employed during the chillier months, providing for a cozy night out.

This has been a popular fopportunity or those with cabin fever due to the lack of entertainment options or the ability to eat out at restaurants. This also provided a creative way for restaurants to survive and to keep employees on the payroll, as the months of closures continued.

Some areas opted out of a full street closure, choosing to close down side streets, parking spaces or shared parking lots instead. Others opted out entirely, leaving it up to interested restaurant owners to apply for sidewalk cafe permits individually.

Areas that chose to take advantage of this option included Andersonville, Chatham, China Town, Rogers Park, Edison Park, Fulton River District, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Little Italy, Near North Side, River North, Roscoe Village, Rush and Division, and West Loop. These efforts were extremely successful ,enabling restaurants to remain in business and communities to have places where residents could safely gather.

To build on the successes of last year, the city of Chicago has developed a new initiative, Chicago Alfresco, a partnership between Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism arm, and the Chicago Department of Transportation. Chicago Alfresco was formed to distribute financial resources to communities to establish public spaces where residents can gather. Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the newly established foundation, was giving $2.3 million in grants to 15 community groups for neighborhood projects. The grants ranged in amount, with a cap of $250,000 per community.

The new initiative was intended to focus on “equity,” and according to the city, about 75 percent went to communities on the South and West sides. Representative communities that received the grants included Little Village Community Foundation, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, and the Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce.

"Outdoor dining became a lifeline for many of our restaurants last year, which makes today's announcement all the more exciting," said Mayor Lightfoot. "I am thrilled that so many community organizations across our city have stepped up to participate in Chicago Alfresco and improve their neighborhoods by creating and enhancing spaces for residents to enjoy themselves in. With more and more proposals, Chicago Alfresco will only build on the success we have had with similar initiatives, beautify our city, and further ensure that our economic recovery from this pandemic is inclusive of all of our communities."

In addition to outdoor dining space, the funds will be used for arts and cultural projects, walking and biking activities and community gathering areas. The grants provide for associated costs such as plantings, pavement treatments, security, lighting, barricades and street furniture. Some areas have announced the intention of building stalls for street food vendors, and temporary platforms in parking lots, which will be used for patio dining.

Restaurant owners could not apply for the grants themselves, as only community groups like chambers of commerce and special service area providers were being considered. In addition, none of the grant funds could be used for anything that benefited an individual restaurant or bar.

The money comes from Diageo, the makers of Guinness. The corporation approached Chicago city leaders several months ago with the desire to help restaurants. There are rumors that the company will be opening a brewpub in Chicago but a Diageo representative said they don’t have anything to announce at this time.

The city is continuing to accept proposals for Chicago Alfresco grants although there have been no announcements regarding when additional funds will be allocated. More information on applying for the program is available here.

The city’s Expanded Outdoor Dining program, which was introduced last year and permits bars and restaurants to operate in private parking lots, on the sidewalk or in closed streets, will also continue this year. Businesses can apply for permits here.

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