Tree Pits Capture Spotlight in Division Street Sidewalk Cafe Protocol Meeting

By at February 28, 2012 | 10:11 am | Print

Ald. Moreno holds up an example of how not to treat a tree pit/ Photo by Philin Phlash

With sidewalk cafe season just a few days away, commencing this Thursday, March 1st,  approx. 30 local business owners and community members convened at The Bedford, 1612 W. Division, yesterday to discuss “Division Street Sidewalk Cafe Protocol.”

The gathering, featuring guest speaker Anthony Bertuca, from the city’s Dept. of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, and Joe McCarthy from the Bureau of Forestry, was initiated by First Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno’s office and included participation from the West Town and Wicker Park Bucktown Chambers, which serve Division Street businesses.

A butchered tree just east of Leavitt, on Division

“I thought it was a great meeting. There was a general consensus about the value of trees. I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Ah, these trees are a nuisance,'” said Scott Rappe, a community member, architect, and prolific East Village Association blogger.

Rappe said that he’d attended the meeting because, “There is a clear motive on the part of businesses to increase their revenues. From a community interest, our interest is in maintaining the trees and keeping them alive and serviceable, to make sure that somebody is speaking for the trees. The main purpose was to get the issue on the table.”

The issue is that some restaurants want more space for sidewalk cafe seating, and their view is that in order for their sidewalk cafes to get larger, the tree pits– or space surrounding a tree containing its roots– have to get smaller. According to Rappe, over the years there’s been “a lot of surreptitious removal [of trees]. This meeting was good, because now nobody can say ‘I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to cut the tree down.’  It has not been very clear what the process is. A lot of people just assume no one is watching,”  he said.

A Honey Locust tree in Bucktown

Thanks to an extensive tree inventory conducted by the Special Service Area (SSA)#33, which began in 2007,  the community is now watching, even if, as one meeting attendee put it, “There is no rhyme or reason or rules, and the enforcement that holds people accountable [to tree abuse] is iffy, too.”

A recent SSA #33-commissioned study yielded a count of 55 different tree species in the SSA that covers Division Street and 1,600 trees in the District, bonded by Fullerton, Western, Division, and Ashland.  The main tree on the Division Avenue parkway is the Honey Locust, per Christy of Christy Webber Landscapes, whose landscaping firm was tapped by the SSA#33 to maintain the pits along with Bartlett Tree Experts.

Webber echoed Rappe’s thoughts about the meeting. “I was there. I’m grateful [they had the meeting],” she said.

Do Division Fest, 2009

“Every one of us wants these restaurants [on Division] to stick. Some of these new restaurants have it built into their business model to have a sidewalk cafe.  They planned on making their money that way.  We don’t want businesses to leave, but we don’t want them to do whatever they want to do [to the trees], either. They have to follow some rules,” Webber said in a phone conversation post-meeting. She added, “Trees live longer than humans and businesses come and go. Of course they [businesses] want to maximize their space, that’s business, that makes sense to me, but we have to think of other ways to do it.”

photo courtesy of Our Urban Times

According to Webber, the impetus for the meeting had been that some restaurant owners had noticed that neighboring restaurants had removed the fences around their tree pits, or “bricked” in their trees, to allot for more patio space.  “They’re thinking those guys got a variance and what the alderman is saying is that no, they just did it. And they weren’t supposed to,” Webber said.

Indeed, a walk down Division Street shows that some trees have suitable pits and fences around them for protection, and others do not.  Without ample space for pits, and protective fencing, residents like Rappe and Marjorie Isaacson who wrote this in-depth piece on Our Urban Times, fear that the maturing parkway trees, many of which were planted 20 years ago, may die early.

“When you remove fences around the tree, when people walk over the roots, it compacts the soil, the water.  A tree needs a 5X5 fence protecting it. If you brick that in, or pave it over, the trees aren’t getting their nutrients. Fences are there to protect the trees. People lock their bikes to them, some think they’re ugly,” Rappe said, adding, “A lot of people think tree grates are the solution, but tree grates only work for newly installed trees, not mature trees like the kind on Division Street. The grates would have to be flush to the sidewalk, but the tree rings are above the surface of the sidewalk and would push the grates up,” Rappe noted.

Joe McCarthy from the Bureau of Forestry speaks about the importance of healthy trees, photo by Philin Phlash

“We wanted to bring uniformity to the cafes on Division Street and are trying to be proactive before the season starts, to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows the overall rules and regulations,”  Matt Bailey, 1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno’s Communication Director explained in a follow-up conversation. When asked by The Pipeline, Bailey confirmed that the meeting was sparked in part by “a couple of complaints” from business owners who’d requested to have the fences surrounding their tree pits removed, since they’d noticed other businesses had removed the fences surrounding their trees. “Hopefully it was productive and hopefully we’ll have a complaint-less sidewalk cafe season,” Bailey said during a telephone conversation yesterday. “For some, they got away with it [altering trees]. The buck stops here and now,” he clarified.

Photo courtesy of Bob San

Bob San, a long-established sushi restaurant that’s been doing business at 1805-09 W. Division since 2000, was one of the businesses that had requested a removal of its tree pit fences, or an alteration of its fence line. Bob San’s general manager, Alex, said, “We would like to be able to have the patio fencing connecting to the building ” Per Alex, there’s six feet of sidewalk between his restaurant and its sidewalk cafe, and he’s concerned that joggers, cyclists, and strollers present a safety hazard with servers carrying hot items.

“Our main purpose for attending the meeting was to address safety concerns. As good as parents are, there’s kids running around and we want to make it safer. We wanted to change the fence line on the trees [in front of Bob San] and were looking to see if there’s more feasible options,” Alex said, adding, “They didn’t explain why some people have fences [around their trees] and others don’t. They say metal grates are an issue as well, and that people can trip on them.”

If Bob San were able to have a connecting fence between its sidewalk cafe and restaurant, it would lose 70% of its [outdoor] seating.  Per Alex, “We don’t want to sacrifice that [business], but in recent years there’s so many children, and joggers, that we’ve been worried about safety.”

Bob San’s scenario was the exception at the meeting rather than the norm. “It [the meeting] was about business owners wanting to expand. It mainly revolved around how they can expand their patios without damaging the health of the trees,” Alex said.

Photojournalist Philin Phlash was at the meeting and added a few photos that he snapped to the Pipeline’s Facebook album. “All the business owners love trees. One individual says he doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t love trees. Tree-lined streets bring in more business than not,” Phlash said.  He also wanted to share the following rules and regulations pertaining to sidewalk cafes that were addressed in the meeting:

*A sidewalk cafe’s flower beds “can’t be fake flowers,” per Phlash

* Every cafe must have six feet of walking space for pedestrians with no obstructions

Milk and Honey's sidewalk cafe, 7/2009

*Sandwich boards, otherwise banned on areas sidewalks, can be located inside of a sidewalk cafe but not outside of it, and the entrance to a cafe must be at least three feet wide.

*Dogs are allowed inside a sidewalk cafe only with a special permit

*Umbrellas over tables require another permit.

*No byob permitted at at outdoor cafes.

* All cafes must have plan and permit posted in their window.

* A sidewalk cafe can’t contain a fire hydrant, parking meter box, bus stop, or bike rack.

* Violation fines begin at $200 per day and can go up if not addressed.

-By Philin Phlash and Alisa Hauser

About the Authors: Philin Phlash founded the Wicker Park Voice, a local rag published from 1999-2001. A punk-rock era photojournalist and ‘yellow bucket man’ in his home turf of the West Side, Phlash’s been contributing photos to the Pipeline since August of 2010. Alisa initially met Phlash in the summer of 2007, when he was selling his photos inside of the now closed Wiki Market (but he doesn’t remember her) and re-met him in 2009 when she popped into Moonshine to interview a new chef. 


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  1. bdog, 3 years ago Reply

    So what was the final verdict? Are the tree fences staying? Will the alderman enforce that removed fences be replaced? Will the city enforce the fines on businesses who do not follow the rules?

    • chicago-pipeline, 3 years ago Reply

      Good questions. All of them. I believe Christy Webber said that the Dept. Of Forestry is responsible for ticketing business owners for tree violations. Though it gets complicated, because the Special Service Area SSA 33 is responsible for the fences and the money comes out of a budget they have. So I do not know how much it is to put up the fences or replace them, but cost could be an issue preventing better enforcement. Those who have removed or altered their tree pits should be ticketed and fined, though I heard one person say that there is no proof they did it and the sidewalks are public space. Brandon, I will try to get some answers from alderman, city, and SSA and upate this.

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