Coalition looking to change midnight closing proposal

Charleston planning director Tim Keane said the concentration of bars and restaurants on Upper King Street and the Charleston City Market area is negatively impacting the residential quality of life in some neighborhoods. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)
Charleston planning director Tim Keane said the concentration of bars and restaurants on Upper King Street and the Charleston City Market area is negatively impacting the residential quality of life in some neighborhoods. (Photo/Gibson Pitts)

By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published June 17, 2014,
from the June 16, 2014, print edition

In the past year, the Upper Deck Tavern on King Street made about 23% of its total sales after midnight. The bar could lose $367,000 a year if it was forced to close two hours earlier, according to manager Mike Grabman.

Some business owners and managers of late-night companies feel that the city’s ultimate goal is to shut down all businesses at midnight — except hotels that include a bar, which are excluded from a zoning amendment proposed (.pdf, page 84) in late May by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Police Chief Greg Mullen and planning director Tim Keane.

Charleston city officials say the Upper Deck and other existing late-night businesses in the peninsula’s proposed Entertainment District Overlay Zone would be exempted from a zoning amendment that would require new businesses to close at midnight.

Upper Deck Tavern manager Mike Grabman said the bar would lose 23% of its sales if Charleston City Council’s proposal to close businesses at midnight is passed and expanded. (Photo/Ashley Barker)

Upper Deck Tavern manager Mike Grabman said the bar would lose 23% of its sales if Charleston City Council’s proposal to close businesses at midnight is passed and expanded. (Photo/Ashley Barker)

Previous coverage:

Late-night permits

Charleston City Council approved an ordinance on July 1, 2013, relating to the operations of late-night entertainment establishments. They are defined as businesses that:

  • Are open to the public after midnight.
  • Are licensed to allow on-premise consumption of beer, wine or alcohol.
  • Are not located in a building that also provides accommodations uses.
  • Hold a Class 7(a) business license or a Class 7(b) business license during their first year of business operations.

No city permit to operate a late-night establishment can be processed or issued until an application to operate the establishment has been approved by a seven-member late-night establishment committee consisting of staff members from various city departments.

As of early June, 75 businesses have been approved for late-night permits. Permits are pending for:

  • Famous Joe’s
  • O’Brion’s Pub & Grille
  • Tabbuli Grill
  • Connections
  • Daniel Island Grille

Source: City of Charleston

“What 23-year-old is going to want to come to Charleston if they can’t go get a drink after work?” Grabman said concerning the possibility of no new bars opening because of the overlay zone.

Their fear stems from comments made by District 10 Councilman Dean C. Riegel, who was the only member to vote against the ordinance during first reading.

He said City Council should not rush through the three required readings because a quick approval 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.”

Riegel said the food and beverage industry should have had a chance to provide input on the topic before the first reading vote.

The ordinance was added to the City Council agenda on the Friday that kicked off Memorial Day weekend, two days after the agenda packets are typically sent out, according to Riegel. With that Monday a holiday, many of the council members did not see the ordinance until Tuesday, 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 people who drink alcohol downtown because, as 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.

Forming a coalition

About 15 members of Charleston’s food and beverage industry — including bar owners, restaurant managers, musicians and an attorney — gathered in early June at Warehouse restaurant and bar. The group worked on a plan to convince city leaders that passing the proposed ordinance would damage their businesses long-term, as well as the city’s tourism industry.

James Groetzinger, owner and operator of Warehouse, said he has a 25-year lease on the building at 45 1/2 Spring St. Even though it’s not 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 — Groetzinger is worried that city officials have not given all business owners a “clear description of what they want.”

Warehouse is within the Cannonborough-Elliotborough and Eastside neighborhoods that the city approved last year for a late-night overlay zone. Charleston City Council mandated that all new restaurants and bars in that area will close at 11 p.m. Warehouse was grandfathered in and currently stays open until 2 a.m.

Groetzinger said last year’s overlay zone was just a first step in what he and other members of the group see as Riley, Mullen and Keane’s plan to eventually replace bars with technology businesses and high-end retail establishments.

“This is not a fight. The city needs to come together and realize that this could affect our lives drastically,” Groetzinger said. “We all have a lot of concerns about the future.”

He said many other cities across the country have had the same issues with growth and have found ways to control it through compromise.

“There’s been a ton of different ways to do it: Limit liquor licenses, like no more for three years, or no more within 1,500 feet of each other; or make specific zones that are only allowed a certain number of licenses,” he said.

The proposal doesn’t take into consideration that a midnight closing means an even earlier last call for alcohol, he said.

“You couldn’t even celebrate New Year’s Eve in Charleston. The lights would have to come on at 11:30.”

– James Groetzinger, owner and operator of Warehouse
“You couldn’t even celebrate New Year’s Eve in Charleston. The lights would have to come on at 11:30,” Groetzinger said.

Husk Restaurant on Queen Street doesn’t operate after midnight. But general manager Jennifer Bresnahan said the new zoning could have a lasting impact on the eatery.

“It’s still going to affect us all. If this city starts shutting down at midnight, they stop renewing licenses, then tourism stops coming to town. Next thing you know we don’t have paychecks going to our servers, our staff goes away, our business goes away,” Bresnahan said. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to have to run a restaurant where I have to downsize because people can’t make money and I can’t support them because there’s not enough tourism.”

Bresnahan suggested bar and restaurant owners ask the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, which runs Charleston Restaurant Week each year, and the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for more help with the proposed ordinance, because leaders of those groups might have influence on local lawmakers.

“During Restaurant Week, we lose money every year. But we participate to be part of the community,” she said. “The Wine and Food Festival, no restaurant makes money. That is a promotional point to the entire country; that is not a money-earning week for any of us.”

She said that tourists flock to the city during those special events and that everyone makes money except the local restaurants because of the discounts they offer to get those patrons into town.

“The hotels are booked ... all the tourism spots are booked,” Bresnahan said. “These guys are crushing it on our hard work.”

She said the group’s end goal should be to change the proposal away from what she sees as a potential ultimatum.

“Right now, they’re trying to make it to where there will be no more new bars ever. We need to get them to compromise to how about two a year in each zone, or five a year total, so they can still control the growth but not put an ultimatum out,” she said.

The industry has had problems in the past getting city leaders to see their point of view, though, according to Republic Reign general manager Evan Powell.

“We have a strong influence and undercurrent in this city to exert some political power and get some people to listen to our side of things and find a voice of reason,” Powell said. “It’s about everybody getting on board with trying to keep these issues for business owners at the top of the discussion and not let two people change the fate of a lot of other people in the city and the surrounding areas.”

Kathy Britzius, director of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, attended the May 27 meeting at which council members approved the proposal’s first reading by a vote of 12-1. Britzius said many businesses in the association are concerned about the financial damage the ordinance could cause.

“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.”

City officials looking for change

Riley, Mullen and Keane sent a memo to City Council explaining their support for the proposed overlay zone days before the vote took place. In the memo, they said Charleston is close to a “tipping point in terms of the late-night and early morning bar-related activity and challenges in our city.”

“Too much of anything can be harmful, and we think it is important to do everything we can to make sure we have moderated this level of activity to a degree that is reasonable for all concerned — those who live and work in the peninsula as well as those who visit,” the memo said.

Keane said the proposal is related in large part to the quality of life for downtown residents, as well as new developments. He compared the 6-square-mile Charleston peninsula to the San Francisco peninsula, which he said is 43 square miles.

“Downtown Charleston is a very small place. We only have 35,000 residents there. Yes, we have a lot of visitors,” Keane said. “But we are very concerned on the one hand that a very small place geographically and in terms of population can be very negatively impacted by rowdy behavior, and we’re seeing that.”

He said the concentration of bars and restaurants on Upper King Street and the Charleston City Market area is negatively impacting the residential quality of life in some neighborhoods.

“A concentration of any single use on King Street or East Bay or Market is a negative thing,” Keane said. “We have demand for other retail on Upper King Street, and it’s kind of being suffocated. It’s not allowing other retail to come in, and we think there needs to be a greater variety of retail on every block of King Street, and that’s not able to happen right now.”

“I was disappointed the food and beverage industry was not consulted prior to it coming up. We had promised them that we would consult them before further laws were passed. I have some real heartburn giving them this first reading.”

– Kathleen Wilson, Charleston City Council District 12 representative
Keane said a group of technology businesses, which he declined to identify, has been talking to city officials about moving to the downtown Charleston area. But he said those businesses aren’t the main reason for the proposal.

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

District 8 Councilman Mike Seekings said the businesses looking to open in downtown Charleston have been concerned mostly about transportation and how to keep the mix of businesses in balance. He added that he’s 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.”

The proposal was sent to the Planning Commission after the first reading and will need two more readings before it could become law.

Debates on the horizon

District 12 Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said approving a first reading lets council members examine the issue and get input from those who would be affected by the potential law.

“I voted to give it a first reading as a courtesy to the mayor and the police chief,” Wilson said. “If we would have deferred it, there would have been potentially a rush on new licenses for bars.”

Wilson said that by approving first reading, council members have given themselves some breathing room.

“This is where you’re going to see massive negotiations take place,” she said. “We can take it now and really debate it.”

Wilson is chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety Committee and said she wonders whether the ordinance needs to be funneled through her committee as well before the next reading.

“There are great public safety issues with this, land use issues, livability issues and economic issues. Whether it comes through my committee or not, I’m going to be vocal,” Wilson said, adding that she would not vote to approve the ordinance again without changes being made to it.

“I was disappointed the food and beverage industry was not consulted prior to it coming up. We had promised them that we would consult them before further laws were passed,” she said. “I have some real heartburn giving them this first reading.”

Wilson doesn’t expect the Planning Commission to be in a hurry to move on the proposed ordinance, and she said the topic will probably not come up in a City Council meeting in June.

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

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