WICKER PARK — Patio season in Chicago is waning — but one Wicker Park business owner is still fighting for a patio permit.
Jun Lin, owner of Bourbon on Division, 2050 W. Division St., applied for a patio permit when the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak this spring. Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) denied the application June 3, citing a high volume of police calls to the bar, neighbor complaints and regulatory issues with the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
But the city’s rules state a patio renewal can only be rejected if a business has had three infractions specific to a patio. Bourbon on Division has only had one, a business department spokesman said.
On Friday, after La Spata missed multiple community meetings and failed to provide a formal recommendation for further action, the city’s business department ruled Lin could open a patio so long as he completes his application.
Lin, who has historically had a patio permit for his bar, said the ruling felt bittersweet.
“La Spata didn’t allow me to have the patio when that was something that legally I had the right to,” Lin said. “He forced me into a situation that harmed the livelihood of my employees. My employees had to suffer. They struggled to pay rent. One of them had to move into my basement. Another manager, I gave him my car to make money on the side with Instacart. He just had a 2-month-old baby.
“… We didn’t ask for anything more or anything less than what everyone else has a right to have.”
La Spata told Block Club he rejected the permit in response to a “genuine pattern” of bad behavior. The bar receives more 911 calls than any other in the 1st Ward, he said. In 2012, Bourbon on Division was cited for serving to an underage minor; in 2013, the bar was cited for operating without a license.
“These are not small offenses,” he said. “We have worked with dozens of businesses on Division Street with their sidewalk cafe permits. We want to see our small businesses thrive in a way that is healthy and in line with social distancing requirements.”
Lin disputed several of La Spata’s claims and asked the alderman multiple times to reconsider his position.
“The only minority-owned and Black-managed business on the street is singled out in the middle of a pandemic,” Lin said. “If my business was a real concern, why [has] no one from the public complained about us in meetings he called over this? No one from the public [has] ever voiced any concern in these meetings.”
Police Calls, Neighbor Complaints Not Enough To Reject Patio Permit
Outdoor dining has been a much-needed boon for many restaurants and bars. But businesses still waiting on permits to participate in outdoor service programs say the city needs to speed up if it wants small businesses to survive.
Sidewalk Café Permit applications are submitted to a local alderman, who has 60 days to return a completed application to a business owner, a business department spokesman said.
On Aug. 5, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection was notified by Lin that La Spata had rejected the application.
The department reached out to La Spata “multiple times” to understand his reasoning for objecting; during these conversations, the spokesman said, the department notified La Spata of the city’s rule requiring three or more patio-specific infractions before denying a permit.
After waiting an additional 60 days to receive a formal decision from La Spata, and having not received one, the department notified Lin on Friday the office could proceed with the permit.
La Spata said he did not make the decision to reject Lin’s application lightly. From May 2019-June 2020, 59 calls were made to the police regarding Bourbon on Division, and the 1st Ward office received 20 calls or emails regarding noise issues at the bar, La Spata said.
La Spata also cited a history of regulatory issues between Bourbon and the city’s business department.
“It was the result of very long and consistent pattern of business,” La Spata said.
Lin said he felt the alderman’s actions were unfair — and his initial reasoning behind rejecting the application was not entirely accurate. Lin requested police call logs and shared the data with Block Club.
Many of the calls appear to have been placed by Bourbon staff. At least three calls were related to car crashes or auto incidents near the bar while at least nine were related to burglar alarms. About a half-dozen calls were emergency service requests during last year’s Do Division festival.
“We called to help other people and had nothing to do with us,” Lin said.
La Spata acknowledged those staff calls, but said they do not make up the majority of the calls.
“That is still far and away the most 911 calls we’ve seen related to any business in the 1st Ward,” he said. “Our first priority is always for the safety, health and wellbeing of our residents. … What we want is to see Bourbon obey the rules and laws of the city of Chicago.”
As for the 20 neighbor complaints, Lin questioned why he hadn’t learned of those earlier.
“The previous alderman has always reached out to us to resolve any issues,” Lin said. The “only time I learned about these calls is when they [told] us they won’t sign off on the license.”
Independent of the permit application, La Spata and the business department coordinated a community meetings process for Bourbon on Division. These meetings are an opportunity for neighbors, police and city leaders to work with a business owner to resolve community concerns.
Business Affairs and Consumer Protection scheduled two meetings for Bourbon during October. Each meeting, however, was canceled or postponed by La Spata.
“I only want the patio license so my staff will have a safer working environment,” Lin said. “He wanted to wait three months to decide and still decided to not show up to a Zoom meeting.”
Another community meeting is being scheduled, a business department spokesman said.
Before Winter, Every Patio Day Counts
Lin said he knows winter is fast approaching and patio approval at this point is mostly moot. But even one warm day of patio business would help greatly.
It’s not just Lin’s staff who are suffering, he said. His bar runs an internship program with Columbia College.
In a letter of recommendation to La Spata, Tom Joyce, the director of the internship program, said the bar offers three to four internships each semester.
“My hope is that our students can see that a minority-run and -operated business can survive in these times with the kindness and understanding of government,” he wrote.
Lin’s parents, Chinese immigrants, moved to Wicker Park in the early 2000s and opened a restaurant named Green Ginger. After his parents retired, Lin took over the business and opened Bourbon on Division.
Sidewalk café permits last from March 1st until the end of February of the following year. Once approved, Lin’s permit will expire on Feb. 28, 2021.
“I don’t believe we should be denied outdoor seating in the middle of a pandemic because of these offenses that happened many years ago,” Lin said.
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