After three months debating how to control its burgeoning bar districts, the City of Charleston seems to have ditched its controversial Entertainment District Overlay Zone proposal in favor of a more modest one-year moratorium on new late-night bars. At a Planning Commission meeting last week, city planner Tim Keane laid out the reasoning behind the plan in simple English.
"There is a difference of opinion ... and the difference is whether Charleston should have an entertainment district or not," Keane said. "And the city really feels like we should not. It's not a good idea to just close the streets and let people take over the streets at night."
The problem is, the city already has two entertainment districts, one on Upper King and the other around Market. And the reason for their existence is at least partly the fault of city government.
City Councilman Dean Riegel, the lone council member who voted against the original Entertainment District Overlay Zone, says restaurants and late-night bars helped rebuild a sagging Upper King after the city invited them to move into the district.
"Go back maybe 12 or 15 years ago, and frankly I was scared to walk north of Calhoun Street to go to the Francis Marion," Riegel says. "But city leaders went to food and beverage, retail, home furnishings [companies] and asked if they'd invest in the Upper King Street district and create a retail corridor ... And the only ones that moved forward on that, as you know, were the food and beverage guys."
Riegel says he supports Keane and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. in what they're trying to do on Upper King, and he says he will consider voting for the one-year moratorium, which will come before City Council for consideration in September.
Whereas the first Entertainment District Overlay Zone was introduced without much fanfare and had the support of only two neighborhood associations, representatives from the following downtown neighborhood associations came out to the Planning Commission meeting to voice their official support for the moratorium: Radcliffeborough, Charlestowne, Cannonborough-Elliottborough, Harleston Village, Mazyck-Wraggborough, Dockside, and the French Quarter.
Some downtown residents expressed frustration that their neighborhoods had become party destinations, with drunk people outside their windows keeping them awake at 3 a.m. "Any establishment within a block or two of a residence needs to close down at midnight because people live there," longtime Ashley Avenue resident Jo Cannon said before the meeting. Another downtown resident complained about having to dodge vomit on the sidewalks with her baby stroller.
Public opposition to the moratorium tended to come from younger residents and members of the food and beverage industry (with a few exceptions, including one man who introduced himself as an "old fuddy duddy"). Chris "Boston" DiMattia, owner and bartender at the Recovery Room Tavern, suggested bluntly that people who want a quiet town should "move to Florida." John Keener, owner of the Charleston Crab House, suggested that soft closings could alleviate some of the crowd density problems at 2 a.m. by allowing people to stay in the bar after the alcohol has been put away.
And Steve Carroll, president of the Charleston Restaurant Association, said police need to enforce existing laws before the city cracks down on bars.
"We pay the highest tax bracket in the city," Carroll said. "We pay a 2 percent hospitality tax on the gross income of our restaurants. No other industry does that. That money was designated for police, sanitation, public safety ... Businesses don't pop up on King Street, bars don't pop up. They go through a rigorous process: zoning, business licenses. Enforce the laws that are on the books."
During the Planning Commission meeting, Police Chief Greg Mullen presented a seven-minute video meant to document the late-night bar scene and its public safety problems. Assembled from what appeared to be handheld video and a few aerial shots, the video did show at least one of the things Mullen has been warning City Council about all along: People pouring out into the streets when the bars close at 2 a.m., unable to fit onto the narrow downtown sidewalks. The rest of the video could hardly be called shocking: People jaywalked, hailed cabs, and frequently yelled "Woooo!"
"Is this serious?" one audience member said around the five-minute mark.
But Mullen and Riley also spoke about two sucker-punch incidents in the bar districts this year, one of which ended in a fatality. Riley, who called King Street "the quintessential public realm," also spoke generally about the need to change the tenor of downtown crowds.
"If you have large crowds, including many intoxicated people, the energy within it creates a sense of anonymity, somewhat surreal, like you can get away with something or you can respond to an urge that in a quieter or more normal circumstance you wouldn't. This is not good for the quality of life. It's not good for the image of Charleston. It's not good for businesses that will locate on King Street eventually," Riley said.
The Planning Commission's one-year moratorium recommendation is just that — a recommendation. City Council still has the option of moving forward with the now-unpopular Entertainment District Overlay Zone, which received a 12-1 first reading vote in May. It could also vote for a three-year moratorium, which Keane has said he would prefer.
"We don't need three years to plan. The thinking behind the three years more had to do with the fact that conditions on the street would change over a three-year period of time," Keane said. "You'd have new businesses open up, the hotels that were under construction would be finished, and you'd have time for businesses to move in. If you look at the cycle of what's happening up there, three years is the right amount of time."