Planning Commission passes late-night bar ban

The city of Charleston Planning Commission narrowly approved a one-year moratorium on certain new businesses in the Entertainment District Overlay Zone. The issue now goes before the full City Council. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)
The city of Charleston Planning Commission narrowly approved a one-year moratorium on certain new businesses in the Entertainment District Overlay Zone. The issue now goes before the full City Council. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)

By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published Aug. 21, 2014

The city of Charleston’s Planning Commission on Wednesday narrowly approved a moratorium on new businesses that intend to sell alcohol after midnight in some areas of the peninsula.

After hearing from more than a dozen residents on both sides of the issue, the commission voted 5-4 for a one-year moratorium in the Entertainment District Overlay Zone, which encompasses the Market and East Bay streets area; King Street from Broad Street north to Poplar Street; and Meeting Street from Broad to Cooper Street.

City officials and some residents spoke out in favor of a moratorium on new businesses that intend to serve alcohol in the Entertainment District Overlay Zone. People involved with the food and beverage industry spoke against the temporary ban. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)
City officials and some residents spoke out in favor of a moratorium on new businesses that intend to serve alcohol in the Entertainment District Overlay Zone. People involved with the food and beverage industry spoke against the temporary ban. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)

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The commission also unanimously voted down the original ordinance, first introduced during a City Council meeting in May, that would have required new bars, restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m.

Tim Keane, the city’s planning director, proposed a three-year moratorium because he said that’s typically how long it takes a business to go from the conceptual phase to design and eventually implementation. Several commission and community members thought three years was too long.

Commission member Sunday Lempesis, who voted against the proposal, said she is opposed to moratoriums in general because they mean “we didn’t plan well ahead.”

“I think a moratorium may be necessary to evaluate everything, but the three years is absolutely insane,” Lempesis said. “We worked so hard to get Upper King Street going again. I think that if we all put our heads together and work very hard with the food and beverage industry, with everybody, this could be done in six months.”

Keane disagreed, saying, “When you have a geographic area of that size and you have the complexity of issues that you heard tonight, absolutely six months is too short of time.”

During the moratorium, which still must be approved by City Council, the community will have time to “study the issue and come up with a long-term solution to address specific circumstances,” according to Keane.

A working group of food and beverage industry leaders, business owners and outside experts would come up with a set of guidelines for late-night establishments on the peninsula.

Businesses that do not plan on serving beer, wine or alcohol between midnight and 6 a.m. will still be allowed to open during the moratorium. Hotels that have more than 20 living or sleeping units will be exempt as well. Keane said the city exempted them because bars in hotels are often a small part of the overall business operation.

“The hotel itself — because of the nature of that business, people residing there for short periods of time — they have a self-regulating mechanism that is a standalone operation and a bar does not,” Keane said. “It’s a different condition in a hotel. That’s why it was written that way.”

City leaders, residents show support

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who showed a video of late-night bar patrons filling the sidewalks and streets of various parts of the peninsula, said a moratorium would not hurt business downtown.

“People are coming to Charleston. They love Charleston. They love the bars that we have now. They love the nightlife we have,” Mullen said. “If there was not another bar that opened up on King Street or at the Market, people would continue to come to Charleston.”

Mullen said arrests on King Street for the first part of 2014 are up 13.5%, which he said is about 150 more arrests than in the same time period last year. He said the majority have been for disorderly conduct and public intoxication.

“If we let businesses continue to pop up wherever they can, it’s putting more and more stress in that area, and as more and more stress evolves, eventually there is a possibility for some catastrophic events to occur. That’s what I want to prevent,” Mullen said.

Mayor Joe Riley also spoke in favor of the moratorium.

“If there is this continued growth of late-night bars and restaurants, then the street changes. What you want is a street that is lively at 11 p.m. and 11 a.m.,” Riley said. “But if the street frontages are dominated by businesses that are open only at night, then at 11 a.m. you don’t want to walk down there. It’s not a nice place. There’s nothing going on. It’s not a great street. It has been harmed, and potentially ruined, if you will, by the over-concentration of late-night establishments serving alcohol.”

Claire Xidis, who lives on Bogard Street, said she supports the moratorium because of the diminishing quality of life in the area.

“Packs of people are leaving inebriated from these bars and going into our residential streets at 2 a.m. We call them the roaming, drunken packs. They’re yelling; they’re causing safety problems, petty vandalism, and it’s a real problem for residents and families in those neighborhoods.”

She also recounted a recent family excursion to the Charleston Farmer’s Market. “We were dodging vomit with the stroller,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be that way, and that’s not what I think we want for our city.”

F&B industry speaks out

Chris DiMattia, owner of the Recovery Room Tavern at 685 King St., said even though the moratorium would decrease his competition, he is still fully against it.

“It’s just not right. It’s not fair,” DiMattia told the commission. “You’re going to lose any young entrepreneur that is willing to move here. If they hear business is shut down in Charleston, they’re going to go to Austin, they’ll go to Savannah, they’ll go to New York City. They’re not coming here, and I don’t even know if you want young people here.”

Elliott Smith, an attorney and spokesman for the BACE League of Charleston, which includes about two dozen business owners from the downtown area, also spoke against the moratorium.

“A moratorium, make no mistake, is not just a pause button. It is a drastic land-use action. It is meant to be employed only when there is hard evidence of an imminent public emergency,” Smith said. “I think essentially the city administration has this backwards in this case. What I heard that they proposed is to enact this drastic land-use measure and then talk about what we should do. It’s the other way around. We need to talk about what we should do, come up with some data, come up with some metrics and then recommend some action.”

John Keener, owner of Charleston Crab House, suggested setting a soft closing time in which last call is at 1:45 a.m., drinks stop at 2 and patrons have until 2:30 to leave an establishment. He also suggested putting a highly visible police substation with a holding cell on King Street.

“I think that would take care of a lot of the crime down there,” he said. “People would know that they’re going to be in trouble if they misbehave.”

Steve Carroll, president of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association Inc., said the 400 members he represents want to be part of the solution.

“The problems on King Street, they’re growing pains; that is what we call them in our industry, and they’re all fixable,” Carroll said. “We have a world-class hospitality industry. They’re good operators and great problem-solvers. That’s what we do every day.”

He added that the food and beverage industry is regulated more than any other industry in the city.

“We pay the highest tax bracket in the city. We pay a 2% hospitality tax on the gross income of our restaurants. No other industry does that,” he said. “That funding was designated for police, sanitation and public safety. We don’t know where it goes. We know we pay it.”

He said instead of enacting more ordinances, the city should free up money for the police department to better control the areas populated by late-night establishments.

Charleston City Council is expected to discuss the moratorium at its next meeting, at 5 p.m. Sept. 9 at City Hall.

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

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