ZBA decision on proposed hookah bar in Gladstone Park pending; Ald. Gardiner, planning dept. don’t support it
by BRIAN NADIG
In a rare move, the city Department of Planning and Development is not recommending a special use request, which in this case calls for the opening of a hookah lounge at 5762 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Gladstone Park.
Opposition from Alderman James Gardiner (45th) to the proposal has been known for months, citing concerns about the site’s proximity to Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity and Hitch schools.
“Without a doubt, our community is not in favor of it. … I live 1 1/2 blocks away,” Gardiner told the Zoning Board of Appeals at its Oct. 20 meeting. “Both the parents and staff (of the schools) are overwhelmingly against it.”
The board’s decision is expected to be announced in the next couple of days.
Assistant commissioner Nancy Radzevich’s announcement of the department’s non-recommendation was perhaps the biggest surprise at the hearing.
Board member Sam Toia said that it was “very rare” for the planning department not to recommend a special use, which can be required for a variety of businesses, including liquor stores and massage parlors, that typically spark concerns from nearby residents. Special uses also are required for drive-through facilities.
Radzevich told the board that she had just discussed with her colleagues that she could not remember the last time she went to a ZBA hearing and was not to going to recommend approval. She said that the department fails to recommend in only about “one percent” of the cases she is familiar with. Usually the department “works with the applicant” to address any concerns, she added.
The west side of 5700 block of Milwaukee where the hookah bar would be located consists mainly of small businesses, including a hair salon and restaurants, that close by around 10 p.m., except for one bar, and serve the immediate neighborhood, Radzevich said.
She also expressed concerns that the establishment could cause some nighttime traffic issues, citing the wide width of the driveways to and from the site’s seven-space parking lot, which borders both Austin Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue. Cars tend to drive slower the narrower the passage way is and faster the wider, she said.
Radzevich also said that the hookah bar would be 227 feet from Saint Elizabeth, contradicting a project representative’s claim of about 400 feet, although in either case it meets the 100-foot minimum length of separation,
Also discussed at the hearing was the applicant’s plan to allow customers to bring in alcohol (BYOB), although no liquor would be sold there. A project official told the board that he was “okay” with a ban on BYOB, adding that most customers would have tea or other non-alcoholic beverages while they’re smoking hookah. He added that the BYOB would be mainly for customers who are celebrating a birthday or other special event.
Project attorney Warren Silver told the board that if the special use were granted on a no BYOB contingency, the operators could come back to the board a year later and ask for an amendment to allow BYOB based on their track record of operating the business.
Toia said that be believes a BYOB restriction was issued about 10 years ago for a hookah application at 5001 N. Harlem Ave., which the board approved over the objections of then 41st Ward Alderman Mary O’Connor.
Silver argued that the proposed hookah lounge was an appropriate use given the current mix of businesses, including two bars and a liquor and convenience store that sells tobacco, located within a block or so of the proposed hookah bar site.
“It matches the character of the land uses around it,” Silver told the board.
The hookah bar would not admit anyone under the age of 21 and IDs would be checked at a reception desk, unlike typical retail establishments that sell cigarettes and allow children inside, Silver said. He added that the hookah bar would not be selling any carryout tobacco products.
The planned hours were announced earlier this year 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. In contrast, the published closing times for the Prince Hookah Lounge, 5001 N. Harlem Ave., are 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends.
Silver said that the planned hours for the hookah bar on Milwaukee were reduced to address the community’s concern that the hookah lounge would be open while children were walking home from school.
“The neighborhood kids already have gotten home from school (by 5 p.m.),” Silver said.
The operators of the proposed hookah lounge have said that there would be no live music and that the establishment is intended to be a place for people to chill and relax and serve as an alternative to a tavern.
The operators reportedly 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, according to Silver.
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 operators said at an earlier community meeting
No parking for the project is required under the zoning code, but the site includes seven parking spaces, Silver said.
Silver provided the board with statistics which he said demonstrate that few crimes are reported in the vicinity of hookah bars, and he said that the hookah bar would be activating a storefront that that has been vacant for several years, except for a couple of months in the fall of 2022.
“An occupied building with eyes on the street versus a vacant building,” Silver said.
Property owner Thomas Tsaganos said that there has not been many prospective tenants interested in the site since a title loan office closed there in 2020 and that the hookah operators expressed strong interest. “They have architects. Not many people do that,” he said.
A large Pace bus stop that blocks the front of the building may make it less attractive to some potential tenants, he added.
Gardiner said that he looked into leasing the building this year for his ward office.
The appeals board operates independently of the City Council, and it’s not unusual for the board to rule against the wishes of the local alderman.
Toia, who lives in the 45th Ward, challenged some of the applicant team’s comments, and told Gardiner, “Obviously you know the makeup of your ward.”
Editor’s note: It was reported at the hearing that the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce opposed the special use request. Nadig Newspapers’ publisher Brian Nadig is an officer in the chamber but recused himself on the chamber vote.