Midnight bar ordinance goes back to the drawing board 

After outpouring of public dissent, city considers new methods for curtailing late-night problems

Charleston city officials are considering scrapping the proposed midnight bar closing ordinance in favor of a new plan that would temporarily stop the opening of new bars in the entertainment districts.

At a public input session Thursday night for a controversial proposal that would require all new bars in Charleston's downtown bar districts to close at 12 a.m., city planner Tim Keane said his department was looking into new solutions.

"We're looking at moving away from the zoning overlay district, which is what we have now, to a moratorium that would be for a specified time where we could study this further and take into account all the ideas we're getting," Keane said after the meeting.

The original proposal, which passed a first reading at City Council's May 27 meeting by a 12-to-1 vote, would have created an Entertainment District Overlay Zone covering much of the Market, East Bay, Meeting, and King Street bar districts. Within that overlay zone, any new bars, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and all businesses that sell alcohol would be required to close at midnight instead of the city's regular 2 a.m. closing time. Properties within the district that currently contain businesses that close at 2 a.m. would be grandfathered in under existing zoning laws.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and Police Chief Greg Mullen originally pitched the overlay idea as a fix for perceived problems of crime and excessive late-night business density in the bar districts. The plan was met by a strong backlash by the food and beverage industry, including the S.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association, which took an official stance against it. At Thursday night's public input session, Nate Lopes (a.k.a. DJ Natty Heavy, creator of charlestonafter12.org) asked for a show of hands from people who supported the proposal. In a crowd of about 150 people, only two could be seen raising their hands.

It remains unclear what alternate route the city could take moving forward. During the meeting, Mayor Riley mentioned that he was "working really hard to bring a major retail establishment" to Upper King Street, helping to alleviate what he has called an over-concentration of a single type of business. Keane said the moratorium might be the solution in itself.

"We basically took a long-term approach to what could be a shorter-term issue," Keane said after hearing a barrage of critiques from the crowd at the public input session. "I believe that in the short term, market conditions will evolve, other retail will come in, and we won't have as much of an issue with concentration. Our initial issue was that this short-term hyper-demand for bars could have long-term negative consequences."

Keane also said he had received numerous suggestions from the community, and he invited people with ideas to contact him at keanet@charleston-sc.gov.

"We've gotten some suggestions about how to deal with the concentration issue, suggestions about how to deal with the concentrations of people who get pushed out at 2 a.m.," Keane said after the meeting. "We've gotten other suggestions about regulations that relate to parking and other zoning-related things and changing those. So the other thing about the moratorium is it would give us time to study all of those ideas."

Whatever the solution going forward, it will likely not be similar to the original proposal, which used zoning changes to change bar closing times in order to prevent potential bar owners from opening new businesses. The convoluted arrangement earned pointed critiques from restaurateurs, lawyers, artists, and residents Thursday night. Even A.C.'s Bar & Grill owner Jim Curley, who originally voiced his support at its first reading, showed up to air his discontent with the proposal, which he called "profoundly unfair" in favor of hotel bars and existing bars like his own. Under the proposed ordinance, new hotel bars could stay open until 2 a.m.

The most popular speaker of the evening turned out to be attorney Marvin Oberman, a self-proclaimed "fuddy-duddy" who introduced himself as being older than Mayor Riley.

"I want to say that I've been really concerned with what I see happening in our city. What I see happening is a crackdown and a pressure on young people having fun and going out," Oberman said. "I have found that our fine police department has stopped my wife and I, members of our family, and other people for no reason. I think this is an aspect of this pressure, this over-policing that we have here ... I really can't see that Charleston will become Myrtle Beach or Las Vegas. I can see we will have a vibrant entertainment district where young people ­— and some of us old people — can go and enjoy a night out and have a drink, or not have a drink and just go out and see what the night life is, because that's what makes a city ...

"Mr. Mayor, you have been instrumental in rejuvenating the center of our city, and I have supported you in everything that you've done to rejuvenate us. But this is not the time to let gray hairs get in the way of continued rejuvenation and life in this city. I ask that you would reconsider this ordinance and not put a lid on what has happened for the good of our city."

The next public hearing on the late-night issue will take place at the Planning Commission meeting on Aug. 20 at 5 p.m. on the third floor of 75 Calhoun St. Riley has said that the original ordinance would come up for a second reading at one of City Council's September meetings.

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