Public hearing on proposed hookah bar on Milwaukee Ave. in Gladstone Park set for Aug. 18
by BRIAN NADIG
A public hearing on a proposed 50-seat hookah bar at 5762 N. Milwaukee Ave. is scheduled to be heard during the 9 a.m. session of the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Friday, Aug. 18, in the Council Chamber at City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Alderman James Gardiner (45th) has said that he opposes the proposal because of concerns expressed by the community, adding that the hookah lounge would be too close to the Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity and Hitch elementary schools.
The board, which is a quasi-judicial panel, acts independently of the City Council, and it’s not unusual for the board to rule against the wishes of a local alderperson. About 10 years ago then-41st Ward alderman Mary O’Connor opposed a hookah bar on Harlem Avenue, but the board sided with the applicant.
In June Gardiner posted on Facebook 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.”
The Milwaukee Avenue proposal is contingent on the issuance of a special use from the board. Special uses are required for the types of businesses, such as gas stations, liquor stores and massage parlors, that often generate concerns in a community.
Those wishing to speak on the proposal can sign up at the meeting to testify, either in support or opposition. Usually the applicant makes a presentation to the board, which then hears testimony from audience members.
During the pandemic meetings were held remotely, and the board had been taking testimony via e-mail before meetings and virtually during meetings. Meetings are now in-person, and testimony is only being taken at the meeting.
Many residents voiced concerns about the hookah proposal at the June 8 meeting of the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association.
One audience member said that the hookah bar, which would be located inside a former title loan office, 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.
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 that customers could bring in their own liquor.
The operators of the proposed hookah lounge said that there would be no live music and 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.
Some residents have said that the hookah lounge would fill a vacant storefront and generate taxes for the city.