The Oak Park Village Board of Trustees were presented with potential winter outdoor dining concepts during its Nov. 23 meeting. As Governor J.B. Pritzker has once again ordered the cessation of indoor services at restaurants and bars due to the high rate of COVID-19 cases, outdoor dining has become even more important — but winter weather presents obvious challenges.

“We’re trying to figure out how to do outdoor dining the right way,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb. 

At the request of village staff, Oak Park-based Aria Group Architects was asked to develop some feasible ideas to continue outdoor dining in winter. While Zoning Board of Appeals member Jim Lencioni presented the concepts during the meeting, he did so in his capacity as president of Aria Group and not on behalf of the zoning board. 

“The restaurateurs in our village are really struggling trying to figure out how they’re going to economically survive the pandemic,” said Lencioni. 

“The idea is to somehow provide some aid to some of the restaurateurs who want to do outdoor dining,” said Lencioni. “I think some of them feel like if they could make outdoor dining work with their carryout, it could help them survive, as well as potentially hang on to more employees.”

The ideas presented by Aria Group range from attractive individual dining huts to open-concept scaffolding structures and carpenter-built wooden frames with wind screens. 

Lencioni’s presentation included potential heating and furniture options for restaurants, as well as ways in which they could decorate the outdoor dining spaces to make them festive for holidays.

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek explained the village needs to make further modifications to outdoor dining as sidewalk tables could hinder the removal of snow.

“While we had anticipated ending all of the parklet and sidewalk dining at the end of October, we have continued that throughout this month,” said Village Manager Cara Pavlicek. 

The village of Oak Park began implementing initiatives in spring to boost outdoor dining opportunities, including streamlining the permitting process for sidewalk dining, as well as placing orange barricades outside restaurants to give more space for outdoor tables. The rented barricades have cost the village an amount approaching $70,000, according to Pavlicek. The village could not purchase the barricades due to lack of storage space.

Trustee Jim Taglia liked the innovative thinking behind the winter concepts, likening them to Chicago’s annual outdoor Christkindlmarket. 

The ability to decorate the outdoor spaces resonated with Trustee Simone Boutet, who felt that people would be more inclined to eat outdoors if the dining areas were “festive and pretty.”

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla stated she understood the importance of supporting local businesses but wondered if the money could be spent to “help people who are really hurting because of lost income,” perhaps through rental or utility bill assistance.

“There’s a lot of people hurting right now, especially going into the holiday season,” said Walker-Peddakotla. 

Pavlicek stated staff remains cognizant of the hardships people are facing and explained that the majority of the village’s Community Development Block Grant funds went toward assistance for low- and moderate-income households. 

“The restaurant industry itself in 2019 generated pretty close to $2 million worth of our sales tax,” said Pavlicek, adding that restaurants were the highest sales tax revenue producers in 2019, generating more revenue than grocery stores.

Trustee Dan Moroney and Abu-Taleb, himself a restaurant owner, wanted the village to only provide the guidelines and infrastructure for outdoor dining in winter, with restaurants covering the costs of furniture, heating and outdoor dining necessities.  

Village staff will continue to develop a strategy for outdoor winter dining and return to the village board with a more detailed plan.

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