Charleston's Late Night Review Committee has released its final report on managing the city's nightlife and submitted it to City Council. The 65-page report (below) proposes several new measures for pushing forward without the use of the current moratorium. The one-year moratorium ends on September 22. According to Elliot Smith of BACE, the report is currently in front of the planning committee. Perhaps the most notable of the recommendations is the 90-day pilot program for soft closings for peninsula bars which would allow operators to provide food and nonalcoholic beverages after 2 a.m. Participation in the program is voluntary and participants must notify the Charleston Police Department prior to the start of the program. Alcohol, beer, and wine will need to be off all tables and re-entry is prohibited at 2 a.m.
In a survey of Charleston restaurants and BACE members exactly the same percentage of voters (27.94 percent of 68 respondents) both "strongly agree" and "strongly disagree" to supporting the soft closing proposal. In a question of whether or not these same voters would be willing to participate in the pilot program, the percentage of "strongly agree" drops to 17.46 percent while the "neutral" votes rise dramatically to 36.51 percent from 13.24 percent.
Soft closings would address the issue of people flooding the streets after bars close by staggering the exit of bar-goers. This street-crowding has been a concern since the ordinance was first discussed, largely in response to the death of Clint Seymour in April 2014. Seymour was allegedly sucker punched in the Upper King district and later died from head injuries.
While the soft closings portion of the plan only applies to peninsula establishments, the rest of the report addresses the entire city, suggesting measures that will affect bustling nightlife in places like Avondale. Special exception zoning will require that new establishments built within 500 feet of purely residential areas to get a special exemption from the Board of Zoning appeals. "They considered the entire city," says Councilman Aubry Alexander, who represents the Avondale area which has its own nightlife issues. Whether they're located downtown or in Avondale, residents near concentrated nightlife areas have voiced concerns about noise levels, trash, and parking issues. Smith says that this special zoning exemption will give businesses the chance to plead their case in front of the city. "They can say, 'We'll manage our crowd, we'll have an older demographic, we'll be a classy cocktail place,'" he says. Smith says that in general he hopes the report will lead to more transparency among the city, businesses, and residents.
The report also addresses parking issues with a focus on getting cars out of neighborhoods and into parking garages. Smith says that there will need to be an audit of current parking spaces and garages in order to determine if new ones need to be built. The report calls for an increase in private security presence in parking garages, 24-hour parking enforcement in adjacent neighborhoods (Radcliffeborough, Cannonborough/Elliotborough, Cannon/Elliott, Eastside), improvement in signage to direct visitors to garages, and creating flat rate pricing for garages. The report also mentions the development of a parking app expanding on the current ParkMe app for promotion of parking garages for bar patrons.
The committee hopes to start a nonprofit group, comprised of what Smith calls a "cross-section of the community," which will self-regulate by positively influencing night life culture. Smith says that the nonprofit will put the pressure on someone if he's not pulling his weight — like an ineffective bouncer who's letting rowdy customers inside a bar. Smith adds that a qualifier to all of this is the fact that the report has yet to be officially approved. "We're in the early stages," he says.
The BACE League of Charleston released a statement after the final report, showing its general support for the initiatives. "It all looks good on paper, but like any regulation that is well-intentioned, it comes down to due process and people," says Smith. "There are no absolutes in the report," says Smith. "It's not a continuation of the moratorium."