Ald. Gardiner says proposed hookah bar would be too close to schools; owners say hours would be reduced based on community feedback at meeting
by BRIAN NADIG
Alderman James Gardiner (45th) opposes a proposed 50-seat hookah lounge in Gladstone Park because it would be too close to the Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity and Hitch elementary schools.
“The #45thward will continue to prioritize the best interests of our #gladstonepark residents and NOT support a proposal to open a hookah lounge in close proximity to elementary schools,” Gardiner posted on Facebook shortly after many residents voiced concerns about the proposal at the June 8 meeting of the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association.
One audience member said that the hookah bar would send a message to area children that tobacco use is okay. “What you see is what you’re going to grasp to,” he said.
The hookah lounge would be located inside a former title loan office at 5762 N. Milwaukee Ave. “That’s way too close to a grammar school,” a meeting attendee said.
Project attorney Warren Silver told residents that the facility would be a block, or about 660 feet, from Saint Elizabeth school at 6040 W. Ardmore Ave. Many residents countered that the distance is closer to a half block.
It is “definitely more than 100 feet,” which is the minimum distance that a hookah bar must be from an elementary school, Silver said. The legal requirement increases to 500 feet for high schools since those students are more likely to seek tobacco products, he said.
Unlike a convenience store that sells cigarettes, Silver said, no one under the age of 21 would be allowed inside the lounge and there would be no tobacco sales for off-site consumption. He added that marijuana would not be allowed but customers could bring in their own liquor (no sales but BYOB).
Silver said that the lounge’s clients also would be potential customers for other local businesses and that three nearby business owners have voiced support for the project. He said that he will provide the association with letter of support from a local restaurant.
The operators of the proposed hookah lounge said that there would be no live music and said that the establishment is intended to be a place for people to “chill” and relax.
Silver said that the operators have experience running hookah establishments in Kyrgyzstan, which was once part of the Soviet Union. Hookah is an important part of the Kyrgyz culture, and Chicago has become home to a substantial Kyrgyz community, he said.
Hookah includes the use of a tobacco pipe with flexible tubing that draws smoke through water. The cost of hookah would be $40 to $45 for two people, plus any snacks or non-alcoholic drinks, the owners said.
At the meeting concerns also were raised about parking and the hours of operation.
No parking for the project is required under the zoning code, but the site includes seven parking spaces, Silver said. One of the operators added that many customers would come with friends in one car.
The planned hours were announced at the meeting as 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. six days of week, but they were later changed to an opening time of 5 p.m. and a closing time of midnight, except 2 a.m. on weekends
A woman said that 3 p.m. was too early because schoolchildren are walking home at that time, and others said that 2 a.m. was too late given current problems from patrons leaving a nearby restaurant.
The proposal is contingent on the issuance of a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals, a quasi-judicial panel that acts independently of the City Council. About 10 years ago then-41st Ward alderman Mary O’Connor opposed a hookah bar for Harlem Avenue in her ward, but the board sided with the applicant and issued the special use.
Gardiner posted that if project representatives move forward with the application process, “The 45th Ward is prepared for any ‘showdown’ when it pertains to advocating for our community.”
Many residents commented on Gardiner’s Facebook page that they agreed with his stance, but others said that the hookah lounge would fill a vacant storefront and generate taxes for the city.