Will outdoor dining zone be permanent in downtown Arlington Heights?
Born out of a desire to help restaurants struggling in the early months of the pandemic, Arlington Heights' outdoor street dining zone may return this year, in anticipation of continued indoor restrictions and capacity limits.
But the popularity of the concept -- dubbed Arlington Alfresco -- has some talking about making it a permanent fixture of the Northwest suburb's vibrant downtown scene.
"It can be the beginning point of a new great identity for Arlington Heights," said Chip Brooks, a downtown business owner who helped push for the European-style plaza setting last spring. "It could really brand the village of Arlington Heights as the most desirable suburb in the Chicago area certainly, and even America."
Brooks, co-owner of the Hey Nonny live music venue and gastropub, helped author a six-page memo sent to village officials on behalf of 17 downtown businesses. It calls for the closure of Vail Avenue and Campbell Street for outdoor dining as soon as March 12, while urging further study of making alfresco dining permanent and even year-round.
The business owners believe such a sustained feature would help lure visitors -- and their tax dollars -- to the quaint downtown, making it one of the most attractive dining and entertainment locales in the Chicago area.
"It saved Hey Nonny last summer and most of the businesses in downtown Arlington Heights," Brooks said. "You cannot believe how uniform and pervasive the praise was from customers for what it was and how it felt. People loved it.
"We learned Arlington Alfresco is really a powerful tool."
Arlington Heights trustees on Jan. 25 are tentatively set to discuss the possibility of bringing back alfresco in 2021 at a date still to be determined -- perhaps not as early as business owners' hopes of a March 12 start date, but not as late as last year's June 3 opening, according to Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village's director of planning and community development.
Perkins and his staff are still taking a deep dive on what a more permanent outdoor dining area might mean, compared to last summer's hastily set up plaza. They're looking at the costs versus economic benefits, and what upgrades to signage and entryways might be needed. They're also reviewing responses to an online survey, which closes this morning.
Of some 6,000 responses collected at the end of last week, the vast majority "loved it," Perkins said. "They thought the ambience and atmosphere was terrific," he said.
Village staff members already have analyzed results of a survey they gave to 250 downtown businesses and to residents in 16 downtown high-rises. Some in the latter group last summer lodged noise complaints against Hey Nonny and neighbor Big Shot Piano Lounge. And continued concerns from residents of the Metro Lofts condo building at 10 S. Dunton Ave. led the village board in August to give Village Manager Randy Recklaus the authority to shut down music at any business if problems became significant.
He never did, but even the possibility has led Hey Nonny's owners to fear that performances by live artists might not be allowed this year.
A Hey Nonny Facebook post and email blast to patrons suggested the village "is on a path that could hurt or even kill Hey Nonny" by limiting the venue's ability to provide outdoor music, which they characterized as "tasteful" and "quiet." The Jan. 11 message encouraged people to fill out the village survey and support live music as part of the alfresco experience.
"The email and social media posting sounded a little desperate, but the truth is we're concerned events could take place that would threaten our existence, and it scares the heck out of us, and it wouldn't be good for the town either," Brooks said.
Perkins said village officials have never said "no" to music completely but did ask the two music venues to tone it down and not have competing live performances. He said discussions with business owners and residents will continue on Zoom in the coming weeks.
"I imagine we'll still be in the pandemic where music venues can't have capacity for at least the first part of 2021, and we need to be flexible and do what we can to assist businesses and allow them to survive," he said. "Once it's post-pandemic, we probably will be developing criteria that's acceptable to those who live downtown and the businesses."