Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bum Steer: Will the city let Gibson's Steakhouse Ride Herd over Mariano Park??

click images for larger view
[Update, June 26] In his Friday letter to his constituents, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly stated the while the Chicago Park District will make the ultimate choice of winning bid for food service at Mariano Park, Reilly declared he "will not support a liquor license in Mariano Park.  Further, I do not support a cooking operation in the park, which would require a much larger structure and far more frequent food deliveries . . . "

You can read Reilly's complete statement at the end of this post here.

[Update, June 1] We now have Gibson's handout on their plans for Mariano Park, including a rendering.  See below.

Last February, we wrote about the threat to Mariano Park, a small slice of urban refuge amidst the glitzy bars and restaurants of the "Viagra Triangle", centered by a small pavilion of brick and polychrome terra cotta trim designed by architect Birch Burdette Long in 1899.

This past February, the City of Chicago put out a Concession Opportunity of Notice of Availability for the park, with rumors swirling that Whispers Cafe, which has operated a concession there for 13 years and won awards for the quality of its care of the park, would be replaced by Gibson's Bar and Steakhouse, whose iconic Chicago restaurant is just across the street.

Spring has come, and with it a pleasant surprise.  Whispers Cafe is back for the summer, and the park is again drawing people to relax in an informal setting under its tall trees.
Whispers Cafe contract expires in November, however, and Gibson's appears to be back in the picture.  The Park District is already listing several dozen bids submitted for Mariano Park.  In addition to long-time tenant Whispers, there are bidders include Goddess and Grocer, New York's Shake Shack chain, the Trib's RedEye, several companies hiding behind professional bid-submittal firms, and even the Chicago Park District itself.  Only one, however, seems have to already created a corporation for the project: Restaurant Holdings, LLC dba Gibson Holdings - Mariano Park LLC.

[Update]: The Park District reached out to Curbed Chicago to clarify that some companies on the webpage registered to get the application but have not actually submitted a bid.
Last week, there was word of a public meeting at which a Gibson's representative would present their plans for Mariano Park if/when it won rights to it.  Quickly, however, the public meeting was restated as a private meeting open only to residents of  the 30-story residential building at 100 East Bellevue.

Inquiries made last week both to Gibson's and to the office of 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly as to when the plans might be made public and public hearings held have, as yet, gone unanswered.

So have I seen Gibson's plan?  No, I have not.  Then how do I know they're going to make major changes?  I don't, but this kind of secrecy is usually a red flag.  Especially in this case, in light both of Gibson's heavy clout and history of territorial expansion into public space, and  of how another public oasis, Connors Park just down the street, was turned over to Argo Tea to construct a private building that takes up all but the narrowest part of the park.  At Connors, assurances that the outdoor seating area would continue to be a public park were undercut both by a design that made the patio appear to be a proprietary annex to the restaurant and by area residents sometimes being asked to leave by Argo staff.   New signage was installed to re-declare the park a public amenity, but the new Connors remains a large tea house with a sliver of a park attached to it.
click image for larger view (recommended)

So, courtesy of Gibson's own handout, we now know it's intentions for Mariano Park, and it's pretty much as expected.  The park's historic charm and open space will be eviscerated to create a commercial opportunity.

Where the Birch Burdette Long pavilion is now, Gibson's plans to erect "the Pavilion at Mariano Park."  Not to be confused with the actual historic pavilion that has given the park its character for over a century,  it's projected to be a glassy new structure of 400 square feet (it looks larger), taking up most of the larger southern end of the park.  The Long pavilion itself is to be stripped of any functional purpose and turned into a glassed-in waxworks "to display a 6'0" tall vintage coffee roaster of the same era as the pavilion itself." What Gibson's thinks that era was is anybody's guess, as their handout identifies the Long pavilion as "from the 1920's" - they couldn't even be bothered to do the simplest research on the building's history.  In its new location - assuming the construction crew doesn't somehow "accidentally" wreck it beyond repair during its relocation - it becomes a useless object, obstructing the clear central view that has always existing at the north end of the park, between the trees, towards the pavilion.

At least when Argo's teahouse building took over Connors Park, they left the northernmost sliver mostly intact,  At Mariano, Gibson's uses it as a dumping ground to get the historic pavilion out of the way of their big new glass money machine.

On Restaurant Business Magazine's  2014 list of the Top 100 Independent Restaurants, the Gibson chain had nearly half of the eateries listed for Chicago, taking in over $65 million.  Gibson's and Hugo's Frog Bar, with a combined take of nearly $40 million, are the dining juggernaut of the Viagra Triangle - no one else comes close.

Gibson's is a prized -and very powerful - Chicago institution.  And incredibly successful.  Do we really need to hand over Mariano to them as well?  Patrons already have a wide selection of high-end outdoor dining all along the perimeter of the park.  There's Carmine's across the street to the east . . .
. . . and Tavern on Rush . . .
. .  . Hugo's Frog Bar next to Gibson's . . .
There's al fresco tables at trendy Nico Osteria kitty-corner southeast of the park, and even at Corner Bakery to the northeast . . .
Gibson's, of course, already has its own generous complement of outdoor tables . . .
In 2012, the city gave Gibson's six feet of a public street, narrowing Bellevue Place's 36-foot width  to allow Gibson's to construct a new sidewalk next to the restaurant's patio seating.  Some reports say Gibson's originally proposed taking over the entire street.

You know want the Viagra Triangle needs?  Not heavily-trafficked streets or sidewalks cluttered with tables and pedestrians trying to squeeze through.  That's pretty much the whole Viagra Triangle, in a nutshell.

You know what the Triangle needs?  Open public space.  A place where, after walking down one over-crowded, hyperactive block after another, you stumble upon what an oasis must feel like when encountered in the desert.  Tall, green trees, air and sun, and seats you don't have to ask a hostess for permission to sit in.  You can stop, breathe and refresh. And, if you want, buy an orange juice, or let your kid gaze through the glass and pick his own flavor of gelato.
That's what Mariano Park is,  a small civic treasure.  The Birch Burdette Long pavilion is a graceful, quirky, century-old slice of Chicago history in a place where history has been all but erased. These are things that should neither be sacrificed, nor "improved" to become indistinguishable from everything around it. 

As David Mamet once famously wrote, everybody needs money - that's why they call it money.  You can never feel you have enough, and that's the basic impulse I fear is behind the bid process at Mariano Park.  By all accounts, Whispers Cafe has done a superlative job during its decade-and-a-half stewardship, but really, what's that, when the clouted smell the meat a-cookin' and can't see the trees for the dollar signs?

This is a debate that needs to come out from behind closed doors.  The Park District needs to disclose its criteria for assessing the bids, and Gibson's needs to make their proposal public.  This isn't merely a financial decision; it's a civic, quality-of-life issue.  The basic character of Mariano Park must be preserved, along with the Birch Burdette Long pavilion.  (The fountain from the 1990's is another matter.)  There should be no new construction that clutters up the park, and Mariano should not be allowed to become little more than just another depersonalized outpost of some deep-pocketed chain.
Mariano Park has character, space, and grace - rare qualities that are becoming in even shorter supply as Viagra Triangle developers continue to ramp up neighborhood density and the price-points of the encroaching shops.  That Corner Bakery? It's about to disappear in a major renovation into an upscale retail building.  The Viagra Triangle is party-in-the-fast-lane, bigger than life.  Bigger even than the streaks at Gibson's.  Mariano Park, alone, is comfortably-paced and human-scaled.

Mariano Park is alright.  Don't screw it up.

June 26th statement on Mariano Park by 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly:

A number of neighborhood residents have contacted my office recently with concerns regarding the Chicago Park District concession at Mariano Park. I am writing to provide you with some important details about the coffee concession - which is under the sole discretion of the Chicago Park District, which operates independently of the City Council.

For over 10 years, Whispers Café has operated at Mariano Park under a concession agreement with the Chicago Park District. This agreement is about to expire, which prompted the Chicago Park District to solicit Requests for Proposals and competitive bids for the concession operation in Mariano Park.

The Chicago Park District and their management team are now reviewing competitive bids and will choose the next operator in Mariano Park. As Alderman, I do not play a role in the selection of the concession or operator for Mariano Park; I can only advocate and provide input on the matter.

It is my understanding that roughly 10 bids were submitted for the concession - including "Shake Shack," "Gibson's on behalf of Ralph Lauren" and "Whisper's Café." I also understand some of the bids submitted to the Park District would call for prepared meals and liquor.

As Alderman, I do play a key role in the liquor licensing process in the 42nd Ward. Please note that I will not support a liquor license in Mariano Park. Further, I do not support a cooking operation in the Park, which would require a much larger structure and far more frequent food deliveries and larger volumes of trash that accompany a prepared meal program.

I also have concerns regarding the larger building footprints that have been proposed for Mariano Park. I believe that the concession structure should be of a size similar to the existing, full footprint of the coffeehouse and outside vending envelope in the Park. I am sharing these concerns with Superintendent Mike Kelly of the Chicago Park District.

I strongly encourage you to contact the Chicago Park District to communicate your concerns regarding the future Mariano Park concession, as this is the agency with the jurisdiction over such matters.

You can­ call the Chicago Park District at: (312) 742-7529 or e-mail Mr. Michael Kelly, the General Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District at:

It is my pleasure and honor to serve as 42nd Ward Alderman. I look forward to working with you in the future to help keep downtown Chicago a great place to live, work and play.

Some Links:

Chicago Park District Mariano Park Concession Opportunity webpage

Save Mariano Park website

Mariano Park Advisory Council Facebook page

Read More:
Not (Birch Burdette) Long for This World?  Century-Old Mariano Park Out for Bid.
Destroying a Park to Save It: The Tea House that Ate Connors Park


Anonymous said...

Nice to see someone speaking out about this. I think Gibson's is a great neighbor and thought their sidewalk expansion was fine--it looks great, but I share your concern for the further development of this space. As has been demonstrated many time over before, all good falls before the power of money, especially in Chicago.


jack said...

you're spot on, Lynn... keep up the fight!

Anonymous said...

Gibsons was a Chicago institution when a good steak was hard to find in most parts of America. Now it's a tacky tourist and suburban hang out for people looking for retro Chicago experience. Theres nothing about the restaurant that warrants handing them prized park space especially one so unique.

Anonymous said...

Give Gibson's the Cedar Hotel space, god knows it needs a more responsible steward.


Anonymous said...

When did Gibsons become the 'bad guy' here? They didn't put the park up for commercial bids, Chicago and the Park District did. Do you think that Gibsons or Tavern or Carmines or Nico or anyone on that corner wants the Shake-Shack style wrap-around lines it's known for (not to mention the amount of garbage and rodents that come with it)? Plus, what's all this about the structure? Ok yes, it was designed by an employee of FLW, who later received great accolades of his own (and dumped Chi to move to NYC) but it's barely functional, neatly stacked bricks with a simple albeit charming roof... that's all!

Whoever gets the space is going to make substantial changes (period). Personally, I prefer it be someone with a vested interest in the park and surroundings over some conglomerate with offices who-knows-where that doesn't give 2 bits about the neighborhood, what the rebuild does to the park, or anything other than making money for that matter. But that's just me.