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Proposed BYOB ban in ‘dry’ Chicago communities may bring backlash

Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) wants bring new development this vacant property along King Drive. | Gary Middendorf~ For Sun-Times

Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) wants to bring in new development to this vacant property along King Drive. | Gary Middendorf~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 14, 2013 6:41AM

In some parts of Chicago, BYOB — bring your own bottle — threatens to take on a new meaning.

A proposed ordinance could more aptly be called “bring your own backlash.” It would prevent restaurants and other businesses in areas voted dry from letting patrons drink alcohol, even if they bring it themselves.

The proposal would end any commercial BYOB practice across an estimated 12 percent of the city. It was voted out of committee and is pending before the full City Council, but it has triggered criticism from aldermen with many dry precincts and from experts in neighborhood development. They argue that BYOBs bring needed commerce and foot traffic to business districts. Some also go further, suggesting dry districts in Chicago have outlived their purpose and now parch any chances for attracting businesses.

The Southwest Side’s Beverly area has one of the most staunchly dry parts of the city. Matt Walsh, executive director of the Beverly Area Planning Association, said it might be time to relax that restriction.

“Over the years, when we’ve asked people what kind of retail they want to see, they say walkable business areas with boutiques and small restaurants,” Walsh said. Those operations can be hard to attract where the sale or consumption of alcohol is banned.

“There’s a profit margin that’s associated with alcohol,” Walsh said. Retail analysts said liquor accounts for at least 15 percent of a restaurant’s sales, with some in the 40 percent range.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) represents dry parts of communities such as Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing, including blocks between the Dan Ryan Expy. and King Drive. Sawyer said he opposes the ordinance. BYOBs in dry areas “are just not enough of an issue to be codified in an ordinance. I think it’s going to hurt businesses.”

Sawyer also said the dry restriction makes it harder to attract restaurants, caterers or others who need a liquor license. He’s had his eye on improving a stretch of King Drive near his ward office, “but your options are limited when you cannot offer liquor service,” he said.

Chicago is hardly a place of Carrie Nation prohibitionism, but voters have since the 1930s exercised a right to ban alcohol sales by referendum. The votes cover an election precinct, just a few square blocks, but complications arise when boundaries are redrawn for political redistricting.

Today, most dry areas cover parts of newly formed precincts, and city officials sometimes must delve into the archives to see if a liquor license can be granted at a particular address. Chicago’s driest neighborhoods are on the Far South Side, with another cluster on the Northwest Side, but they crop up around the city.

Development consultant Mari Gallagher said that if problem drinkers swarming the streets are an issue, regulating BYOBs isn’t the solution. “In most neighborhoods, BYOBs keep things safer. It brings people out at later hours, and that keeps eyes on the street. They often drink less, too, when they’re bringing their own,” she said.

John Melaniphy, head of the retail consulting firm Melaniphy & Associates Inc., said his Northwest Side area has voted some dry precincts back into the wet category. It helped the business node around Devon and Central, he said.

“We had about four restaurants open. Two made it. It worked out nicely and created more attractions to the area,” Melaniphy said.

O’Connor said a similar decision to go wet might help the Norwood Park part of her ward, where the business district has struggled.

BYOBs or repealing dry precincts are no panacea, experts said, but they can help a shopping district develop a unique flair. “It’s not about the dollars at a BYOB,” Gallagher said. “It’s about how you create a cluster of entertainment and commercial uses.”

The proposed BYOB ordinance came from West Side Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), who was concerned that a banquet hall planned to circumvent a precinct voted dry.

The committee recommended the ordinance after the Law Department said the rule couldn’t apply to one location only, but must be citywide.

It’s not known how many restaurants the ordinance would affect. Restaurants that encourage BYOBs but operate in a dry area include the popular Tre Kroner at 3258 W. Foster and Pizzeria Deepo at 1742 W. 99th St.

Sawyer and Ald. Mary O’Connor (41st), who also represents dry precincts, said the ordinance lacks support to pass the full council and will be held for discussion. The next council meeting is Wednesday.

A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel had no comment on the ordinance.

John Barsella, a partner at the accounting and consulting firm Plante Moran who has restaurant clients, said he hopes it never passes. Chicago, he said, is known for a thriving BYOB culture and should encourage it, especially along commercial strips that need a boost.

“BYOBs are usually a more family type of place that can have a dramatic impact on a business area. These are usually places that people walk to,” he said.

Taking away the BYOB option, he said, “is hurting an entrepreneur who is using every last dollar to support the business.”

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