Q&A With 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, The “Brewer’s Alderman”

In Makers by Karl

47th ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, via Friends of Pawar.

47th ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, via Friends of Pawar.

We talk a lot about beer politics here, but we don’t seem to discuss the politicians who influence our beer very much. I’ve been interested in why Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, North Center and the 47th ward seems to be the destination for new breweries, tap rooms, and distilleries like Begyle, Spiteful, Letherbee, the Half Acre taproom, stores like Bottles & Cans, upstarts along the Ravenswood line like 4Paws, as well as (comparatively) longtime residents like Metropolitan and Koval.

We’ve spoken to our alderman, Ameya Pawar, in the past for Center Square Journal. But it was this tweet, asking Three Floyd’s to give a shot to the neighborhood, that made us think that he’d be interesting to talk to about beer. (We’ll get to that Twitter outreach later.)

What role does politics, and an Aldermanic office, play in opening a brewery? Or a tap room? Or a beer store? We wanted to ask.

So we did.

GDB: We’ve got a lot to discuss, but I’m quite interested right off the bat about what you guys had to do to get Half Acre into their tap room. You helped them get on of the first tavern licenses in the city in a while, right? Tell me about what went into that process.

Ameya Pawar: So, a lot of areas in the city have liquor license moratoriums, and they vary based on the kind of license. On some blocks, you might find a moratorium on package goods, or taverns, or sometimes both. And we had a lot of that in the ward.

One thing that we’re trying to do as we organize block clubs and community organizations and start to work with them on zoning decisions, we’re also working with them on some of the policies related to liquor licenses. There are instances where we’ve heard from restauranteurs or bar owners, where they’re saying we want to open an upscale establishment but it feels like the hoops that we have to jump through to get a moratorium lifted is just too much.

On the other hand, those protections have also limited certain types of establishments to enter the ward. What I’m trying to do is make sure we don’t go with a one size fits all policy for the entire ward, but actually work with the community and work with them hand in hand as we make those kinds of decisions. So with Half Acre, we worked with the North Center Neighborhood Association and with the guys from Half Acre to make sure that people understood what the plan was, what they wanted to do, what their concept was, and I think the end result is great. People absolutely love the tap room.

I think it’s a win, win for everybody.

GDB: That leads me to another question. Over the past decade or so, the neighborhood tavern culture has really been diminished in this city. Could something like that be on the way back, in your opinion, based on the experience with the tap room?

AP: It just depends on perspective. I know for a long time the neighborhood taverns were looked down on, and the sort of “corporate style” establishments were in favor. I don’t take sides, but one thing that I do think is important is some of the neighborhood taverns. We’ve got G&L Fire Escape [in the ward], [which] is they’re really supported by the community. People like them. So again, I try not to look at this as [favoring] one type of establishment over the other. We try to make sure we look at each individual establishment’s owner, what they’re proposing, what their concept is, go to the community and get their feedback, and make sure they’re a good fit.

Centro, for example, was an establishment that we shut down 6 months after getting into office. They were supposed to be a restaurant/bar, when in fact what they were a nightclub that happened to serve food. That wasn’t a fit for our community – they weren’t good neighbors. They were actually terrible neighbors. And we worked with he community to shut them down. That was the fastest closer that the city is aware of – six months, from start to finish.

My point here is that we want to make sure that everything aligns. That the owners and their concept is a good fit with what the community is looking to support. If you get off on the wrong foot, everyone’s looking at each other and staring each other down looking for problems. That’s why I think community engagement on the front end with the prospective restaurateur or bar owner is important.

GDB: You’ve been in office for a while now, and it seems like the area is opening a new brewery every 4 months or so at this point. What is it, do you think, about the ward, or the neighborhood, or about even the Ravenswood Corridor in specific, that attracts people?

AP: You’ve got building stock that works. You’ve got one of the busiest Metra stops on the entire line. We’ve got a lot of Brown Line stops. This is a very transit friendly ward. I think that makes for an eclectic mix of folks that live in the area and I think that is great for people who are looking to buy craft beer. It kinda matches up really well.

One of the things that we’ve been trying to do is to go out and try to be proactive. If someone wants to open a brewery and we work with them to make sure they’re out there in the community getting to know the community and make sure it’s a good fit – Begyle, for example.

The initial community meeting at the Begyle space. Via Begyle's Facebook page.

The initial community meeting at the Begyle space. Via Begyle’s Facebook page.

I think initially when they presented their concept, people were really nervous about having a beer production facility near their homes. By the end of the community meeting, as people get to know each other, people were really excited about the prospect of having a brewery on their block. I think it worked out really well. I think that’s why making sure you have your pulse on the community [is important] but also making sure that the entrepreneurs that are coming to your office – that you’re linking them to the community on the front end. Because what you don’t want to do is set up a situation where they’re separate. We try to avoid that to the extent that we can, so people felt like they had a role.

Ultimately it works out for the business, because people want to be a good neighbor to their business, and actually spend their dollars there. I think Begyle, they had a good experience working with the community and our office. So did Half Acre. And we’ve made it clear to folks around the city that Lawrence Avenue – if you’re interested, and you’ve got a great concept, come talk to us. I think we’ve tried to make sure we’re out there, we’re aggressive and recruiting the right kind of businesses.

GDB: When you came into office, I’m assuming that brewery law was probably not your forte. Was there a learning curve for what your office could do to help facilitate brewers come to the ward? And what the office of Alderman can do to move that forward?

AP: The big thing that we’ve discovered is that…well, normally there’s a zoning change that’s involved. One thing we did when we got in is we created a zoning advisory committee. What’s good about the committee is that everyone lives in the ward, and a lot of people that have land use expertise and zoning expertise and practice in this area of City Hall also happen to live in the ward. So they know the ins and outs, they know the tricks of the trade, and they also know what to look for if someone is putting forward a proposal that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So we’ve got these folks that are advising my decisions, informing my decisions.

So when we have people come in that want to put forward a concept, they vet it, I vet it, and then we have a conversation with the business owner to make sure that it’s going to work for our community. Again, it goes back to Half Acre, right? So, a tap room sounds great. You’ve got Bad Apple, you’ve got Gannon’s in the area.

But a tap room means you need a tavern license, so people automatically feel like, “hey, it’s a new tavern, it’s totally unregulated, what are we going to do here.” But we got the guys from Half Acre to go and meet with the North Center Neighborhood Association at a community meeting. And a lot of people already loved Half Acre. Once they heard about the concept, everyone was all on board. And then everything went smoothly. And if you go there now on any given night, I’m sure you know this – they’re packed. Every night that they’re open.

So, I think one thing that we’ve learned, is the policy and the zoning piece – some of that just, you learn that over time. You know the right designation for the right amount of space for the right operation – you can learn all that stuff. But getting to understand what the community is willing to support and what they’d like to see – that’s the important piece.

pawartweet

GDB: I have to ask about the day where the Tribune published the piece about Three Floyds and I don’t know if it was you or your staff sent this tweet

AP: Yeah, I sent them an email! I called their offices, and I said, “I will personally give you a tour. Why don’t you come on down.”

GDB: Was there any follow-up on their end from that? Or was it more done in the spirit of simple invitation?

AP: I just wanted to extend a welcome, and say if you’re interested, we’d love to have you. But there’s some really cool concepts that are being thrown around in the ward. We’re working with a couple businesses that want to open here along Lawrence Avenue, and in other areas of the ward, and they’re still really conceptual, and the owner doesn’t want to talk about it publicly, so I can’t say anything about it just yet. But there’s some really cool stuff, and a lot of really cool ideas being thrown around, so I’m really excited about it.

I mean, Andersonville is great. Lincoln Square is great. And now Lawrence Avenue can connect those two neighborhoods. And I think the Mariano’s, and the LA Fitness, and the new housing that’s going in in the Sears lot, coupled with the Streetscape, it’s creating a lot of interest in the open spaces along Lawrence Avenue. I think you’ll see some really cool stuff happening in the next 2-4 years on Lawrence.

[At this point the Alderman confirms that we are talking about the spaces previously mentioned in this post, referencing the property at Lawrence and Wolcott, and the old Chicago Ale House space. All attempts to ferret out any other additional information were met only with this:]

AP: It’ll be worth the wait, once you find out.

GDB: I’m not sure if you’re much of a craft beer drinker, but do you have any personal favorites?

AP: I am, I love craft beer. What’s cool about craft beer, is that…I remember, there was a show, it was on like, HDNet. It was like, “The Beer Guy?” Do you remember that show?

GDB: Are you talking about the Discovery Channel’s “Brew Masters?”

AP: No, this was like…7 years ago. I remember watching it, and they used to talk a lot about how beer, and craft beer, pairs better with food than most wines. And I remember watching this show, and thinking, “This is really cool.” And I just started from there. I love IPA’s. I’m always up for trying new IPA’s. Kristina Bozic has a great store in West Lakeview Liquors. I’ll stop in and grab a beer there, or Bad Apple, and even [Mrs. Murphy and Sons] Irish Bistro has a great selection.

GDB: Since you mention West Lakeview Liquors, that brings up Bottles and Cans. The owners seem to have been pretty pleased with the opening process [as mentioned in this Hail 2 the Ale piece] – was that another example of the community engagement process that you mentioned?

AP: Exactly. Exactly. Bottles & Cans, again – in a stretch of North Center, where there was a moratorium. You know, and I think people were kind of nervous about lifting that moratorium, and what that might mean. Again, we went on the front end, we went out to the community.

The owners went out, they actually live in the ward, they talk about what kind of stuff they want to carry – they’re not going to be carrying highboys of…I don’t know. Old English. They’re not carrying 40’s. They’re catering to a crowd that buys craft beers and high-end wines, and so people embraced that concept immediately. And they’re doing well.

Again, we get folks to come in and say, this is our pitch. This what we want to do in the ward. And we try to link them up with a community group in the area right away. I feel like people want to at least be a part of the conversation, and not feel like they go to a community meeting when it’s a done deal. Because at that point, you’re either saying “eh, I guess I’m okay with it” or “I absolutely hate it, and now I have to figure out what to do about it.”

If you’re in on the front end of it, you might say, “well, I’m not really sure about it, but I’m glad you’re coming to me on the front end, and we can talk through some of the issues.” And it’s not a done deal at that point. You can talk through the issues. Talk through hours. And not everyone is happy at the end of the day. But they feel like they were part of the process, and the process was honest.

Brewers and brewpubs who wish to contact Alderman Pawar and give us more awesome stuff to drink right in our neighborhood, visit Chicago47.org. This means you, Three Floyds. 

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About the Author

Karl

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Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Draft Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, comes out in early 2017, and if you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.