by Paul Bowers
After nearly five months of debating how to regulate the downtown entertainment districts on Upper King Street and the Market, Charleston City Council passed a one-year moratorium on the opening of new bars in the districts by a 9-3 vote Tuesday night. The dissenting votes came from council members Marvin Wagner, Aubry Alexander, and Kathleen Wilson. Councilman Dean Riegel, an early critic of the plan, was absent.
The moratorium specifically prohibits "the processing of development applications and issuing of permits for new businesses that intend to allow on-premise consumption of beer, wine, or alcohol between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m." within roughly a one-block radius of Market, King, and Meeting Streets bounded by Broad Street to the south and Poplar Street to the north. The moratorium does not apply to existing businesses or to new hotels with 20 or more rooms.
The moratorium will be in effect until Sept. 22, 2015, one year from the date when the ordinance passed a first reading. The stated purpose of the moratorium is to allow the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability to consult with community stakeholders and make "recommendations regarding the reasonable regulation" of late-night bars. In support of the moratorium, city leaders have cited problems with public safety and a lack of diversity in the types of business within the affected area. (Read more about crime in the affected areas by clicking here.)
The ordinance had strong backing from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.; Police Chief Greg Mullen; and Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability Director Tim Keane, along with most downtown neighborhood associations. It was opposed by many restaurateurs, fans of the Upper King nightlife, and employees of the food and beverage industry, who were often represented at city meetings by the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association and the BACE (Business, Arts, Culture, Entertainment) League of Charleston.
Although the final ordinance was less stringent than the original Entertainment District Overlay Zone that Mayor Riley proposed in May and shorter than the three-year moratorium that he later proposed, Riley said after the council meeting that he was "very satisfied" with the final outcome.
"We really wanted to engage the debate, which we did," Riley said. "I think the year with the study committee is sufficient. I think it's a very good solution."
The debate was indeed an engaging one. Since the city has effectively had a moratorium on late-night bars in the affected district since Council began discussing the issue in May, Councilwoman Wilson proposed at the last City Council meeting that the moratorium could be revised to only last until May 2015. When that proposal was shot down, she said it was the "final straw" that made her vote against the ordinance.
"This was not handled well from the very, very beginning. Council was shanghaied," Wilson said. "It was so sudden, it was deemed an emergency, and we had to act. And if you didn't support the mayor and the police chief with this grave public safety issue, then you didn't care about the city."
The ordinance passed with very little discussion Tuesday night, a marked contrast to the hours-long debate at the first reading in September. "We had our shootout two weeks ago," Wilson said after the meeting.
Steve Carroll, president of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, said the moratorium could cause some restaurateurs to look to other, more business-friendly cities when opening new restaurants.
"We just hate to see restrictions on small business in this day and time when people are struggling," Carroll said. "We hate to think that the hospitality industry that gives back so much to the community all the time, that we can't work these things out without passing a moratorium."