Under the City of Evanston’s Zoning code, restaurants commonly considered “fast food” restaurants are not permitted as a matter of right and always require City Council to issue a special use permit. Fast food (“Type II” under the code) includes every restaurant that does not offer sit-down, glass china, real flatware, and cloth napkins.
Apparently, this long-standing ordinance resulted in confusion for one prospective business owner, who is seeking to open Rubie’s restaurant at 1723 Simpson St., former home of Ramy’s Foods convenience store.
Confusion went beyond the Type II restaurant issue, as a number of public speakers rose to praise the “vision” for Rubie’s as an establishment offering programming for kids after school and on the way to school, a vision that was not before the Planning and Development Committee on Jan. 22. After-school activities for youth, explained the applicant Robert Crayton, would come as a part of phase two of the project. Phase one, up on Jan. 22, concerned opening the restaurant only.
Mr. Crayton told the committee he was unaware he needed a special use permit to open, and as a result the conditions attached to a recommendation from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for approval could be met after opening. Things broke down from there as Mr. Crayton addressed the committee.
The central issue concerned glass block windows and burglar bars on the front of the building. Some at the meeting said ZBA’s approval was conditioned on their removal and suggested the applicant apply for a façade improvement grant to pay for new windows. Again, though, there was confusion as to whether the grant application was required, and, later, whether the grant application had been submitted.
Scott Mangum, the City’s Zoning Administrator, said “staff believes” both the removal of the bars and replacement of the glass block “would be required before the issuance of a business license.”
“That’s not even what the email he wrote this morning said,” said Mr. Crayton.
“I know I’ve been very clear in not supporting this without the glass block and bars removed,” said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, whose Fifth Ward includes the site. She said the City’s requirement have always been “clearly communicated,” saying she has been copied on all email correspondence. She also said that though the “current vision of the business is clearly inspiring” it has “been very fluid.”
“The conversation we had was a personal conversation we had when we first met” to discuss the site, replied Mr. Crayton.
“You started work without even getting any City permits,” said Ald. Simmons.
“I didn’t need any permits,” said Mr. Crayton.
“When the City came to check on that [whether permits were needed for the work under way], they weren’t allowed access,” said Ald. Rue Simmons.
“I didn’t know I had to let anyone into the building,” replied Mr. Crayton.
The exchange continued, growing more volatile, until Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, intervened. “Madame Chair, you need to get control,” she said to Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rrd Ward, who chairs the committee. Ald. Rainey also said she attended the ZBA meeting for another reason, and it was clear to her the glass block and bar removal, or at least plans to do so, was a requirement before a special use permit could issue.
“It’s a great spot for a restaurant,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “It’s up to you – it’s your business – to make sure you are going to be able to do what you plan to do within that space.” Currently, occupancy would be limited to 10 people, because there is only one accessible restroom.
District 202 School Board Member Monique Parsons then rose in defense of Mr. Crayton, “I’ve been helping Mr. Crayton navigate this very complicated process,” she said. The City never told Mr. Crayton the glass block and bars had to go before they would issue a business license, she said. “That was not a condition. Can you explain to me when this was decided?”
She concluded, “I just don’t think he is being heard, and I just want to reinforce that.”
“We are going to have to hold this, said Ald. Wynne. “There’s just too much confusion.” Mr. Crayton continued to protest, but to no avail. The Committee voted to hold the matter until the next meeting, at which point perhaps at least some of the confusion will have lifted.