The village of Oak Park has given restaurants a reprieve by extending outdoor dining until Oct. 31, but one block won’t get to enjoy the benefits of the extension. With construction about to descend on Lake Street from Oak Park Avenue to Euclid Avenue, restaurants are reeling with financial anxieties over the impending loss of precious outdoor seating.
“It’s just devastating. I mean, it really is painful,” said Patrick O’Brien, owner of Scratch on Lake, 733 Lake St.
The section of Lake Street between Oak Park Avenue and Euclid Avenue will close Sept. 8 for completion of streetscaping and sidewalk reconstruction. The work necessitates the cessation of outdoor dining for the majority of the block’s restaurants.
“It just doesn’t seem fair when we’re already dealing with this COVID crap,” said O’Brien. “We finally found a way to keep some people employed, to ring our register and they’re going to yank it two months early.”
One of O’Brien’s servers created an online petition to delay the construction until Halloween. As of Sept. 1, the petition has amassed almost 300 signatures.
According to Village Engineer Bill McKenna, delaying the work is impractical due to the possibility of inclement weather during the fall and winter months.
“It’s not feasible to do that during the weather conditions and then things get delayed, it gets more expensive,” said McKenna. “Work rolls into 2021 and has a longer impact.
McKenna’s reasoning did not fly with O’Brien.
“This is crazy. It’s not major construction. It’s the sidewalks,” said O’Brien.
During a June meeting with Hemingway District stakeholders, attended by O’Brien, McKenna gave three scheduling options for work on the block. O’Brien chose the option to delay construction until after Labor Day.
“Well, it was the latest option we got!” O’Brien said.
Scratch on Lake has spent over $5,000 in tents, televisions and lighting to create a safe and pleasant outdoor dining experience for customers, according to O’Brien. When he received the letter from the village that outdoor dining was extended, he was thrilled.
“I emailed right back, ‘Thank God, that’s the best news we’ve got all year,'” said O’Brien. “Then two days later, we’re told to take everything down on the eighth of September.”
O’Brien believes that construction crews can complete concrete work during the winter without major issue. He said he spoke to outside contractors that supported his belief.
“They can work on concrete in cold weather,” O’Brien said. “They are costing me alone a couple hundred thousand dollars and about eight employees with nothing to do when that whole dining room comes down to a month early. Insane. Insensitive. Ridiculous.”
McKenna and project spokesman Jim Prescott said they would be reaching out to the restaurants on that block to clear up confusion about the start date of construction. O’Brien has yet to hear from them.
McKenna said some restaurants could put dining in the back of the restaurants. Curbside pick-up will be able to continue as well.
“We’ll work with them for any potential opportunities that they want to explore for dining,” McKenna said.
Losing two more months of outdoor sales will be a detrimental blow to Scratch on Lake. Per COVID-19 restrictions, Scratch on Lake can seat only 25 percent of the restaurant’s capacity inside. Without outdoor dining, O’Brien expects the restaurant will have a five percent chance of making it all the way to March or April.
Christiane Pereira of Mulata, 136 N. Oak Park Ave., plans to ask the village if Mulata can put tables outside on Oak Park Avenue since they will lose their outdoor dining on Lake Street. Outdoor dining, she said, has been a crucial revenue source.
“The outdoor dining has been extremely helpful because our patrons have been preferring to sit outside,” said Pereira.
If the village doesn’t allow Pereira to put tables on Oak Park Avenue, she worries customers won’t want to come to the café.
“Losing the outside is going to be very challenging, like it was in the spring when COVID first hit,” said Pereira. “I don’t want to go back to that.”
The intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue closed earlier this spring for infrastructure work.
While COVID-19 has resulted in crews carrying out certain portions of Lake Street reconstruction at a faster pace, the entire project’s completion is still scheduled to end just before Thanksgiving.
“I don’t want to undersell the amount of work we have to do in the network,” McKenna said. “It’s still a big construction project.”
The project includes all new traffic signals, landscaping, pavement, lighting and irrigation systems.
“It’s a lot of work to compress in three months,” McKenna said.