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Technical changes in the City’s restaurant zoning code highlighted a perceived tension between the City and small business in Evanston. In recent decisions, the City Council has come down on the side of exerting more control over business operations, such as limiting the amount of litter generated on-site.

At issue were the definitions of Type 1 and Type 2 restaurants in the City code: Type 1 restaurants are for the most part sit-down restaurants; Type 2 restaurants are generally take-out or fast food restaurants. Other factors that appeared to weigh on Council members’ minds were the employment of Evanston youth; and the difference in management between franchises of large national chains and small, locally owned businesses. Some observers said they felt the discussion evinced an antipathy of the City toward small businesses.

The Former Definition Now Applies

City Council voted in September of last year to replace the Type 1 and Type 2 definitions with simplified language that hinged on two aspects of the business: the percentage of food consumed off-premises, excluding home or office deliveries, and the presence of a drive-through window. This definition replaced the old definition that required reusable tableware and service by wait-staff for all Type 1 restaurants. [Go to the complete definitions.] But in January, Council members voted unanimously to return to the old definition.

Only four new restaurants have been through the zoning process for a special use under the new definition. Three seemed to be obvious fits: Subway and Jimmy Johns were Type 2, and the Bombay Grill, Type 1. The fourth restaurant, apparently, led to the Jan. 25 discussion.

Dessert Shop Sparks Concerns

Even earlier, – in December – Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, asked City Staff to update Council on the new definition, citing I Dream of Sweets, a new dessert restaurant at 611 Dempster St. The shop serves light lunch and dessert items, along with ice cream and coffee.

Ald. Wynne said City Council is “trying to control the proliferation of fast food restaurants and the litter that goes along with them.” She and another alderman said they were concerned that although the restaurant owners stated on their application that they anticipated that 69 percent of its food would be consumed on the premises, it could generate more litter. The owners report that to date on-premises consumption has far exceeded 70 percent. Zoning Administrator Bill Dunkley said his office has received no complaints about it.

Concerns Over the City’s Business Processes

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, called for a shorter process. “A type 2 restaurant applicant should not have to wait three months. [The process] should be cleared up – [business owners] should not have to wait that long. Subway knows how to deal with it. But others, I can see how it hurts,” she said.

Ald. Rainey proposed bypassing the Zoning Board of Appeals and bringing special use permits directly to the City Council. “There are special uses, and there are special uses,” she said.

Caught in the middle of the debate over napkins and cups on the street are small businesses like I Dream of Sweets, which has been open less than a month.

Cost of the City’s Business Processes

The cost to the community of the zoning changes and procedural requirements can be see in two areas: the expenses incurred by the City for changing the zoning code and the exit from – or decision not to enter – the City of Evanston.

In a separate interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Dunkley acknowledged that the special use process limits the number of small, locally owned ice cream shops and delis’ in Evanston. “Yes, absolutely,” he said. “That’s a matter of policy. Our job is to implement policy.” He said he agreed with Ald. Rainey’s implication that the result is that only large chains, such as Subway, are able to sustain the carrying costs associated with obtaining a Type 2 permit, effectively forcing some smaller businesses to look elsewhere. “I’ve seen businesses turn around and leave,” rather than absorb the costs and time associated with the special use permit process, he told aldermen at the Planning and Development meeting.

Changing from one definition to another also costs the City money at a time when the budget is stretched past the breaking point. “We changed the definition in all our materials,” said Mr. Dunkley, adding, “There’s a cost associated with changing them back – not a trivial cost, and staff time, and potential risk [if any errors are made]. … It’s a lot of work to change these things.”

The owners of I Dream of Sweets say they plan to hire two or three Evanston youths to work in the shop as business picks up – and they have already received dozens of inquiries from jobseekers.

One business owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear that the City might retaliate in some license or code manner, called dealing with the City “a nightmare.” Rather than support and encourage small business, the City seems, the owner said, “out to get us every chance they get.” That owner echoed the sentiments of Caitlin Stephenson, owner of a legal nonconforming vintage clothing store who said, “Evanston does not like small business. Evanston is not helpful to the small business person.”

Johnny, the owner of 2nd Hand Tunes record store on Dempster Street had a one word response to the efforts of City Council to make it more difficult for small businesses in Evanston: “Typical.”