French Quarter residents at their wits end over late-night bar patrons have doomed Pearlz to an 11 p.m. closing time — a potentially fatal curfew for the popular oyster bar.
The East Bay Street restaurant has been operating for years until 2 a.m., but it was discovered recently that the building is only zoned for business until 11 p.m. Business owners Mark Cumins and Jerry Scheer worked closely with the neighborhood association for concessions and recently pleaded their case in front of the city's Board of Zoning Appeals. But they were narrowly rebuffed, largely over the concerns of individual residents on nearby streets who are seizing this opportunity to curtail a handful of Charleston's late-night bar crawlers.
Resident Kathleen Rivers says that she recognizes the urban nature of peninsular living, particularly smack in the middle of the tourist district.
"But the noise aspect on the weekends has become so severe," she says. "It shouldn't be up to the residents of the French Quarter to ensure the peace and enjoyment of our homes and where we live."
The argument from Pearlz, put simply, is that everybody else is getting a pass. Nearby restaurants and bars are similarly zoned, but each has either been grandfathered into a late-night closing time, or they've successfully sought exceptions of their own â€" including Southend Brewery and Smokehouse, Blossom, the Restaurant at Vendue Inn, and the Griffon.
"You close at 11 and walk outside and see everything going on around us," says Cumins.
A few months ago, the East Bay Meeting House was given an exception to stay open until 1 a.m. Zoning board member Margaret Smith says she supported that request because there was no neighborhood concern. The residents coming out against Pearlz led her to oppose its request.
"The neighbors live next door to a limited business zoning, and they deserve the protection that zoning offers," she says.
It's evident from resident concerns that Pearlz is taking this hit due to a larger problem: drunk and troublesome patrons that are herded like sheep out of Market area bars and restaurants at 2 a.m. They're left to wander in search of the last place they saw their car. When they can't find it, they're prone to pee or pass out on the nearest doorstep (and they're not always quiet or discrete).
Frustration last summer led residents to petition the city police to better patrol the area. The number of officers has increased in the community and around the nearby bars at closing time and into the early morning, says Lt. Charles Mitchell, helping to decrease complaints. The police also worked with restaurants to self-monitor their employee parking, and officers increased parking enforcement.
Understanding resident concerns, Cumins and Scheer worked with the French Quarter Homeowners Association and built a list of concessions they'd hoped would bolster their argument in front of the city. There's no amplified music, security keeps the crowd under control on the weekends, and Pearlz offered to help financially with private security in the neighborhood, if it was desired.
"We absolutely believe we nurture the neighborhood we're in and the neighborhood nurtures us," Cumins says.
The association tepidly agreed to the request for an exception (though it wanted a slightly earlier 1 a.m. closing time), but individual residents came out in opposition and the board denied the Pearlz request due to a 3-3 tie.
Board Chairman Leonard Krawcheck voted against Pearlz, but he says the issue should be weighed by the City Council.
"I think everybody's right," he says. "There's a fragile coalition between the commercial and residential interests. ... I would hate to think we would put a good business like Pearlz out of business."