The new 3 a.m. soft closing offered by the city as a result of the Late-Night Activity Review Committee's listening sessions is a perfect example of how to make a great idea not so good. Originally conceived as a way to stagger the exodus of bar customers over the course of an hour rather than all at once, additional regulations have made the later closing time less appealing to many bar owners.
Rather than offering a watered down incentive for bars to stay open an extra hour, the city should allow soft closings without all of the additional regulations. As currently offered, bars opting into the soft closing pilot program must turn up their lights, turn down their music, and take away everyone's remaining drinks containing alcohol. Obviously, they are also prohibited from serving more alcohol after 2 a.m., but they can serve food. Only a handful of bars have signed up for this program as of the writing of this article. As one bar owner has noted, the incentive for bars to into the soft-closing program is relatively minimal since the city is essentially following the laws already on the books. Instead, if bar patrons were allowed to finish their drinks and the bar could otherwise operate as normal — albeit without the serving of additional alcohol — more bars would participate. And their patrons would also leave a bit later, allowing the staggered exodus envisioned by the policy's creators.
So how did we get here? To recap, bars in Charleston currently have to close at 2 a.m., and all patrons who were inside of the bar prior to closing must be outside of the establishments at that time. Police and downtown neighborhood residents have long complained that the release of bar patrons at this time creates excess noise and enforcement problems. As you'll recall, in response to this perceived problem and due to the proliferation of bars on Upper King Street, former Mayor Riley and the City Department of Planning Preservation and Sustainability recommended a three-year late-night bar moratorium in 2014. The city Planning Commission unanimously voted against recommending the three-year moratorium to City Council, but did recommend a one-year moratorium which City Council approved.
During the moratorium, a committee appointed by former Mayor Riley and members of City Council, met and held listening sessions with the public in order to determine how to best address the problems of the increasing late-night bar crowds. Those problems were, in no particular order, "noise, litter, traffic, unnecessary burdens on public safety officers, and other deleterious effects which disturb the peace, quietude, and good order of the community." One of the recommendations that came from the listening sessions was the 3 a.m. soft closing time which is being implemented under a 90-day pilot program.
The Late-Night Activity Review Committee contains a broad cross-section of the community, including bar and restaurant owners who are committed to a vibrant nightlife in Charleston. In order for their recommendations to succeed, the proposals should not be diluted by additional city regulations. And if the soft-closing pilot program actually works, the city should consider making the program permanent and do away with the rigid enforcement of the 2 a.m. closing ordinance in favor of staggered closings. The result would be a more orderly dispersal of late-night bar crowds, increased business for the food and hospitality industry, and a better experience for bar patrons.
Dwayne Green is an attorney practicing in downtown Charleston. He received a bachelor's degree in Politics from Princeton University and his law degree from the University of Iowa. He is the former Assistant Corporate Counsel for the City of Charleston and a past chair of the Charleston Board of Architectural Review.