Tech businesses want balance downtown, some city officials say

By Ashley Barker
Published May 29, 2014

Technology businesses are a loud voice among those concerned about the downtown Charleston nightlife scene, according to city Planning Director Tim Keane.

But he said those businesses aren’t the main reason City Council is considering a proposal to close new bars and restaurants at midnight, instead of 2 a.m.

“The tech businesses have a legitimate concern, but it’s one of many,” Keane said.

“Late-night businesses are pushing out other uses, and that’s not good to us,” Keane said. “We don’t want to have a single use dominate any one area of the city," said Charleston planning director Tim Keane. (Photo/File)

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Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Police Chief Greg Mullen and Keane proposed a zoning amendment earlier this week that would require new bars, restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations on large parts of King and Meeting streets, as well as the Market and East Bay streets area, to close two hours earlier than the businesses that are currently there.

“Late-night businesses are pushing out other uses, and that’s not good to us,” Keane said. “We don’t want to have a single use dominate any one area of the city.”

Keane said the city wants to make sure there’s room for offices, retail space and other mixed-use establishments that might be interested in the peninsula.

“King Street is our responsibility, to make sure it’s healthy and safe. The bar and restaurant late-night scene is becoming too dominant in certain parts of the city,” he said.

A group of technology businesses, which Keane declined to identify, has been talking to city officials about moving to the downtown Charleston area. The city wants to make it clear to businesses that Charleston is first a place where people live and work and that “late-night entertainment absolutely comes second,” he said.

“In the last five years, the contact we have had with them (technology businesses) has grown dramatically. The demand seems to be escalating,” Keane said. “Clearly over the next five years, we’ll have several new people in the software and in the knowledge-based business coming to downtown Charleston, not just one location, not just King Street, but definitely on King Street.”

Councilman Mike Seekings said the city has been talking to a lot of different businesses recently, including those in the technology sector. Their concerns have mostly been about transportation and how to keep a balance of businesses, he said.

PeopleMatter on King Street is surrounded by bars,” Seekings said. “They’re (PeopleMatter) supportive of us, as is everybody else. They want to make sure King Street stays vibrant for all businesses that are and want to come there, during the day and at night. They don’t want it to be an unbalanced proliferation of businesses.”

Seekings said he speaks frequently with PeopleMatter’s Nate DaPore, CEO of the Charleston software firm, about businesses on the peninsula.

“We support our local businesses and community here in Charleston,” DaPore said in an emailed statement. “We encourage the city to give all stakeholders a voice in this discussion and hope the city will evaluate what is best for the community after hearing feedback from everyone.”

Seekings said he has received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the community since the ordinance was first brought up.

“I think the community is very happy with it,” he said. “This isn’t the end of this; it’s just the beginning.”

Kathy Britzius, director of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, is concerned that the ordinance could cause financial damage for future food and beverage establishments.

“We’re upset about it right now,” Britzius said. “We have hopes that there’s some way we can come to some sort of an understanding. It would have a tremendous impact on our businesses.”

Keane said the city is looking to protect businesses and the residential quality of life on the peninsula. More late-night establishments could significantly impact area neighborhoods, he said.

“We feel like we’re at a bit of a tipping point for that,” Keane said. “Charleston is unique. It’s a smaller city geographically, and the population is relatively low compared to bigger cities, and it’s easier for these late-night things to have a bigger impact.”

Last year, the city approved a similar ordinance in the Cannonborough, Elliotborough and Eastside neighborhoods of downtown Charleston to “protect the residents,” Keane said. The city now requires new bars and restaurants in those areas to close at 11 p.m.

“In that case you had commercial properties directly adjacent to single-family homes, people’s houses,” Keane said. “It was decided that 11 p.m. would be better.”

Keane, Riley and Mullen are proposing midnight in the main commercial districts because some restaurants in that area are still serving dinner at 11 p.m.

“We felt like a little more time until midnight would be OK for the commercial area,” Keane said.

Charleston City Council passed the first reading for the ordinance on Tuesday by a vote of 12-1; Councilman Dean C. Riegel voted against it.

Riegel said he voted against the proposed ordinance because the food and beverage industry did not have an opportunity to provide input.

“It was disconcerting to me that the industry that this is most going to affect did not have any notification,” Riegel said.

The ordinance was added to the City Council agenda on Friday, two days after the agenda packets are typically sent out, according to Riegel. With the holiday weekend, many of the council members did not see the ordinance until the morning of the meeting.

“It doesn’t give you a lot of time to reach out to your constituents for input,” Riegel said. “The city could do better as far as notifying the parties.”

Riegel said he is in favor of controlling the behavior of folks who drink alcohol downtown because he said “nothing good happens after midnight.” But he is concerned that if new businesses start closing at midnight their patrons will drive to another district and create similar problems there.

“Will they go out to West Ashley, drink in a tavern until 2 a.m. and then proceed to drive back downtown? I’m very worried about that,” Riegel said.

He said City Council should not rush through this process because it could become a slippery slope for more changes.

“If approved, this is something that could be easily modified, easily changed to apply to all restaurants and bars that they need to close by 12,” Riegel said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s going to sit there and assure you that that will not happen. You can’t make those assurances.”

The ordinance will need two more City Council votes to be ratified.

Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.

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