In a 12-1 vote Tuesday night, Charleston City Council passed a first reading of an ordinance that would restrict the hours of new late-night businesses in the city's thriving entertainment districts.
If the ordinance passes a second and third reading, it will create a new Entertainment District Overlay Zone wherein many newly opened businesses — including bars, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and any business that sells alcohol — will have to close by midnight, as opposed to the citywide 2 a.m. bar closing time. Under city zoning code, any properties that have existing late-night businesses will be grandfathered in under an allowed "nonconforming use." If the business closes, the grandfather clause remains in effect for the property, provided that another late-night business opens in the same spot within three years.
"We're not shutting down existing businesses at midnight. What we are doing is taking a deep breath, which, like it or not, we need to do," Councilman Mike Seekings said before the meeting began. Seekings was a vocal proponent of the measure, along with Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and Police Chief Gregory Mullen, who wrote in a letter to council that "we believe we are close to a tipping point in terms of the late-night and early-morning bar related activity and challenges in our city."
Few representatives from the food and beverage industry attended the City Council meeting, which took place in the thick of the busy Spoleto Festival season. One restaurant owner, John Keener of the Charleston Crab House, spoke against the proposed measure, saying it would devalue leased properties in the overlay zone. He also said that during last year's discussion of the controversial Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance, city officials promised they would include members of the F&B industry in any future discussions of alcohol-related restrictions.
"Does Charleston really need the headlines of 'Charleston gone wild?'" Keener said. "We can't control the bars and restaurants in Charleston, so we have to cut it off at 12? That'll be the headline on CNN." Keener is also a boardmember of the Charleston Restaurant Association.
The lone nay vote Tuesday night came from Councilman Dean Riegel, who also brought up the city's promise to include bar owners in future discussions. "I feel so often we identify a small chip in the woodwork and proceed to paint with a broad brush," Riegel said.
Another councilmember, Kathleen Wilson, raised the question of whether creating a midnight closing time for new businesses would create two separate waves of closing-time crowds in the street — one at midnight, the other at 2 a.m. However, Wilson did not vote one way or the other on the proposal. A city spokesperson said that since Wilson did not abstain, her vote was counted as a yea.
The ordinance had enthusiastic support from the neighborhood associations of Radcliffeborough and the Mazyck-Wragborough Garden District. Councilman Gary White, whose district includes Ansonborough and the French Quarter, said that the noise of people leaving bars at 2 a.m. is "the biggest complaint" of residents in those neighborhoods.
Mayor Riley said the ordinance was about creating "balance" in development and "trying to protect something special."
"We have enough bars and restaurants in a concentrated area to allow for a very vibrant and robust nightlife ... and we are not going to run the risk of going past that tipping point and changing the nature of our city," Riley said. Responding to the critique that bar and restaurant owners weren't notified earlier about the potential change, Riley said it would have only encouraged entrepreneurs to open new bars and restaurants in a hurry before the ordinance took effect.
"If we said, 'Let's study this for a year,' then that just is like firing the gun, where they've all got to race right now, and it's creating an inflamed development situation. I see no community benefit for that," Riley said.
Jim Curley, longtime owner of the Upper King Street bar A.C.'s, said after the meeting that he supported the proposal. Curley previously fought against the city's 2 a.m. closing law and indoor smoking ban, but this time he said the ordinance made sense to him.
"We understand. We deal with the chief of police and all members of his department regularly, and we understand what he's dealing with. Particularly the Upper King Street area is at issue," Curley said. "They have livability issues and business interests to try to maintain some balance."
Curley also said the city's parking infrastructure had already reached its capacity for late-night crowds.
"If you've tried to park late on a Friday or Saturday in our area, or you've tried just to walk down the sidewalks, you will find that there is as much traffic as that area of town can handle," Curley said.
The proposal will now be considered by the city's Planning Commission, which will then pass a new version back to City Council for its second and (potentially) third readings.
The ordinance and a map of the proposed Entertainment District Overlay Zone can be found below: