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City lets Gibsons expand sidewalk cafe — by narrowing the street

A woman walks her dog recently added sidewalk next Gibsons Bar Restaurant 1028 N. Rush St. Tuesday May 22 2012

A woman walks her dog on a recently added sidewalk next to Gibsons Bar and Restaurant, 1028 N. Rush St., Tuesday, May 22, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:08AM

T he sidewalk wasn’t wide enough to accommodate everyone.

So, in warmer weather, the 11-foot-wide patch of concrete on the north side of Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse — the Rush Street-area restaurant that’s popular with politicians, professional athletes and other celebrities — turned into an obstacle course. Moms with strollers, dog-walkers and other pedestrians had to avoid tables and chairs, as well as diners, waiters and busboys, as they walked by.

The local alderman, Brendan Reilly (42nd), wasn’t happy.

So Gibsons owner Steve Lombardo offered a solution: Widen the sidewalk.

“Steve Lombardo of Gibsons is proposing to extend his sidewalk into Bellevue and have use of the public way. At their expense, of course,” Reilly’s staff said in an email last year to a city transportation engineer.

That would mean narrowing Bellevue Place — a two-way street — from 36 feet wide to 30 feet wide between Rush and State streets. That would ease the hassle for pedestrians — and also give Gibsons more room for outdoor tables on city-owned property.

Not such a good idea, Gabe Klein, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transportation commissioner, told Reilly in a letter opposing Gibsons’ plans.

Narrowing the street, Klein wrote, could create traffic problems for people living in a nearby condo building and make it harder for vehicles to pull over to make deliveries without getting in the way of traffic.

That was last June. By Sept. 28, though, the position of Klein’s Chicago Department of Transportation had changed.

“Staff members from CDOT have visited the site on several occasions to observe traffic patterns,” Klein’s top deputy, David Donovan, wrote to Reilly. “These observations confirm that vehicles queue single-file on Bellevue and that narrowing the street will not negatively impact capacity. For these reasons, CDOT supports Gibsons’ sidewalk-expansion proposal.”

Gibsons had help in negotiating with City Hall. It hired zoning lawyer Jack George, a law partner of Michael Daley, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s brother.

Reilly asked Gibsons to notify nearby condo owners about the project, on which McHugh Construction broke ground in March.

But that didn’t happen, prompting complaints.

“The only notification we got was construction workers on the street,” says Douglas Switzer, an architect who lives just east of Gibsons on Bellevue.

Switzer says he would have liked to offer his ideas about the project but met with Gibsons’ owners only after construction began. They apologized for the oversight, Switzer says.

“Ask for forgiveness instead of permission,” says Switzer.

Lombardo didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Today, his restaurant has a bigger outdoor area to serve customers and to help it compete with Tavern on Rush and other nearby restaurants that have big outdoor-seating areas.

Reilly and Emanuel are among dozens of politicians who have gotten political campaign contributions from the restaurant and its owners. Lombardo held a campaign fund-raiser for Emanuel in December 2010 at Quartino, another downtown restaurant he owns, records show.

Reilly has gotten nearly $44,000 in contributions from Gibsons but says that had nothing to do with him ultimately supporting the project.

He says he wouldn’t have supported it had city engineers rejected the plan.“I looked at this as a creative way for them to maintain this sidewalk café, which has been wildly popular,” says Reilly, “and provide more space for pedestrians without negatively impacting traffic flow.”

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