As the City of Charleston continues to evaluate revisions to the Late Night Entertainment Overlay District with a specific focus on "new bars," it appears that we have a dilemma. Is the issue a law enforcement issue as suggested by Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen or is it a zoning and planning issue as proposed by the city's planning director, Tim Keane? And do these two issues contradict each other ? I do not think that they do.
The issue is both a law enforcement issue and a planning issue. From a quality-of-life viewpoint, Charleston must do something to control the behavior of the significant number of bar patrons who flood downtown's streets at 2 a.m.
While South Carolina prohibits the serving of liquor after 2 a.m., it is the city that requires bar owners to force bar patrons onto the streets at two. This creates a mix of hundreds of patrons in close proximity to each other on Upper King Street in various states of celebration or inebriation.
These patrons then funnel onto the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods in a boisterous mood possibly feeling the urge to water neighborhood lawns or shrubs. Of course, their departing demeanors do nothing to ensure a good night's rest for those in the surrounding neighborhoods.
At this point, the law enforcement argument enters the discussion. Chief Mullen has presented statistics documenting the increase in the number of arrests for the Upper King Street Entertainment District. I have supported Chief Mullen's efforts by voting for additional monies for more officers to patrol this area, and by all reports I have heard, they have done a good job.
The next discussion is the zoning challenge of fostering business diversity. I fully support Tim Keane's stance on this issue. Business diversity is important for sustainability and quality of life on Upper King. We should recruit non-liquor-serving retail establishments to the street. Some potential businesses could be home furnishing stores, clothing stores, book stores, florists, pharmacies, and even alcohol-free restaurants that are open 24 hours a day.
However, there's a problem, and that problem concerns real estate property values and lease rates. Because of high rental rates, bars can afford and will outbid the retail entrepreneur seeking storefront property. The latter simply will not be able to achieve the profit margins to justify opening a new business.
But there is a solution. My suggestions are less onerous than a three-year moratorium and will lend themselves to enforcement by current laws on the city books with only a slight revision.
1. Implement a 30-minute soft closing allowing the bar to remain open until 2:30 a.m. This reduces the rush of patrons onto King Street and will mitigate traffic congestion, as patrons gradually filter out to their vehicles. This also creates an opportunity for those who feel obligated to water the neighborhood lawns to do so in a more civil manner in an establishment's restrooms. By drinking soft drinks and coffee inside the bar, the patrons will also have the opportunity to enjoy good conversation and to sober up if need be.
2. As downtown parking garages are less than fully utilized anyway, I would suggest that we offer significantly reduced parking rates to entice revelers to city garages and not seek free parking on the surrounding neighborhood streets. These garages also have public facilities. Boisterous activity in the garages might not be dramatically reduced, but revelers would likely be far enough removed from the majority of the neighborhoods to allow those attempting to get a good night's sleep to do so.
3. In regard to business diversity, I applaud the efforts by Mr. Keane and his department to entice non-bar businesses to the Upper King Street area. The solution to attracting more diversity appears to be a simple one. We utilize the city's existing permitting and licensing departments to monitor and control the types of establishments operating along Upper King. After a thorough and concise analysis, a figure could be established to identify the ideal number of bars operating in the entertainment district. For lack of a better term, a quota would then be established limiting the number of bars that are allowed to operate. If the current number of bars exceeds the quota, then a moratorium exists. If an existing bar closes, no new bar would be permitted to take their place. If the number is under quota, some consideration might be given to allow a new bar to open until the quota is reached.
At the end of the day, these recommendations should be considered as alternatives instead of painting the problem with a broad brush as we often do on city council. I feel that my approach is a more surgical approach to these issues.
Dean Riegel is a Charleston City Councilman and mayor pro tempore.