At its next meeting on Sept. 24, Charleston City Council will consider making a few big changes: restricting the hours of new bars in Cannonborough-Elliotborough and adopting a procedure for notifying property owners of potential downzoning. The root cause of all this change? Drunk people.
More specifically, the new ordinances are being proposed in response to the impending proliferation of bars staying open until 2 a.m. within the neighborhood, which is roughly bound by Morris Street, King Street, and the Crosstown. During the public comment session at last week's City Council meeting, a dozen residents of the neighborhood shared stories of mayhem already happening outside their front doors late at night: College kids urinating in yards, noisy crowds of up to 40 people all smoking on the sidewalk at once, drunk drivers sideswiping vehicles parked on the street. A few families said they planned to move out of the neighborhood if Council didn't do something to fix the problem.
"Folks that are young professionals are leaving, and what we are left with is a student housing population," said Tim Muller, president of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association.
The meeting was the culmination of an effort that started in mid-July, when Council proposed rezoning hundreds of properties in the neighborhood from General Business to a brand-new Neighborhood Business zoning category. In city Planning Commission minutes, the proposed new category was described as "intended to provide for a limited variety of commercial uses and services associated with neighborhood retail, financial, and office activities which are compatible with residential areas." Business operating hours would be restricted to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and certain categories of business would be banned altogether, including liquor stores, bowling alleys, billiard parlors, and dance halls.
The neighborhood association got behind the idea and urged Council to pass it quickly, but Councilman Aubry Alexander says not everyone was pleased with the rezoning push. The change would be a downzoning — that is to say, a move to a more restrictive zoning, which could potentially hurt property values — and he says he got calls from owners who didn't find out their properties were potentially being downzoned until after the City Council meeting where the idea was discussed.
So Alexander proposed his own ordinance, one that would lay out a process for notifying owners of potential downzoning and would also require the city to pay property owners for any value lost as a result. "The bottom line is we need a process that's fair, a process that defines how downzoning can occur, and also integral to it is compensation," Alexander said before last week's meeting.
Well, apparently not that integral. Alexander dropped the compensation part of the ordinance after catching an earful from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., the Preservation Society of Charleston, and the Coastal Conservation League, who said it would cost the city big money and hobble future zoning efforts. "The real issue is the process," Alexander said at the meeting, doubling down on the owner-notification part of his proposal.
Toward the end of the meeting, Council voted to charge Tim Keane, the city's chief planner, with drafting a process for notifying property owners of potential downzoning. They also dropped the Neighborhood Business zoning idea. In its place, Council will consider creating an overlay zone in Cannonborough-Elliotborough where all new bars that open will be required to close by 11 p.m.
So: No rezoning, no drops in property value, everyone goes home happy. Right?
The latest batch of proposals is the second time this year that rowdy drunk people have shaped city law, the first being the controversial Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance that required bars to monitor parking lots and hire bouncers in proportion to occupancy ratings.
In this instance, Councilman Alexander says the overlay idea might be too narrowly focused. Alexander's district includes Avondale, a West Ashley neighborhood where a concentration of late-night spots has already created a severe parking shortage. He also sees a potential for late-night bars to move into downtown neighborhoods including North Central and the Eastside as urban renewal picks up pace. "This will be an issue that raises its head each time an area of the city begins to get popular," Alexander says. "Why not grab that tiger by the tail and start addressing it, versus what looks to me like spot zoning?"
Still, Cannonborough-Elliotborough residents are demanding something be done, and several urged Council to act quickly, in spite of the fact that new bar approvals have been put on hold while Council mulls the issue. Late-night Cannonborough-Elliotborough certainly doesn't have the debauched feel of King Street, with only a few bars including Cutty's Elliotborough Establishment and the upscale Warehouse, but more bars have been proposed for vacant properties, and residents painted a bleak picture of the future at the meeting last week.
Daniel Atwell said he has lived on St. Philip Street for 11 years. "I've gone from gunfire to skateboards waking me up, so I can't complain in general," Atwell said, eliciting chuckles around the room. "I've also started raising a family, and I really want to stay ... So this really impacts my future, my children's future, and we will be forced to leave if [the overlay proposal] doesn't pass, because there is a location within 200 feet that is primed and ready to be a bar."
Under the overlay, existing bars would be allowed a variance to continue operating until 2 a.m., but if one closes and another bar doesn't open on the property within three years, the variance would expire.
James Groetzinger, who recently opened Warehouse at the corner of Spring and St. Philip streets with business partner Joey Rinaldi, says he is familiar with the complaints in the neighborhood, but he gets 10 times as many compliments. He says that while he does get referrals from concierges at a few high-end hotels, the majority of his clientele are locals who walk or bike to the bar. And he stresses that Warehouse is not a college bar. "That is absolutely not the direction we are trying to go," Groetzinger says. "I think anyone who comes in and takes a looks at our beverage and food program and the quality of the chef that we've hired and the professionalism that we're representing with our service would know that we are catering to a more sophisticated crowd."
Groetzinger has lived in Cannonborough-Elliotborough for five years, and he has taken pains to make sure he's being a good neighbor. He trims dead fronds from the palmetto trees on the sidewalk. He has his doorman limit the number of people going out at a time for smoke breaks. And he prints a friendly warning in bold letters on the front of all his menus: "Please respect our neighborhood."
"Of course an influx of a lot of establishments that stay open later is not what any neighborhood needs, but I do think that a variety of styles of places is what makes the neighborhood special," Groetzinger says. "So I think that moving forward, there clearly are people in the neighborhood who have a strong opinion about the future, but if the entire neighborhood closed at 11 p.m., I think that would take away from what makes it special."