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City Council, May 27

Restricted opening times for new bars and restaurants on King and Market Streets
Proposed ordinance unlikely to be final
Warwick Jones

We appreciated the intention of Mayor Riley and Police Chief Mullen. The night scene on Upper King Street and Market Street has reached a “tipping point”. And this view was reinforced by the recent homicide during a drunken brawl, they said. But was the Entertainment District Overlay Zone which they proposed for much of King and Market Streets the answer? The Overlay Zone would allow existing bars and restaurants to remain open until 2 a.m. But any new bar or restaurant would need to close at midnight.

There was a lot of discussion on Council and many comments from citizens. We’d describe the reaction as mixed. Ultimately, Council passed the ordinance with only Council member Riegel opposed. But this did not mean that it was an easy passage or a final outcome. The proposed ordinance will go the Planning Commission and be subject to public hearings. The views of affected property owners and business owners will also be sought and these things were understood by Council members. The ordinance at its final and 3rd reading could be very different from that presently proposed and indeed, it may not make it through the process, a process that some members thought could take a year or so.

Mayor Riley spoke a number of times on the issue, touching on the vitality of businesses on King Street, the accolades the City had received and the need to preserve the City’s unique features and livability. There was nothing he said that any reasonable citizen could take issue with. And no Council member took issue with the Mayor. But many had issues with the proposed ordinance.

The Ordinance in its present form is simple. It makes no changes in zoning but restricts the hours of operation for new businesses, essentially bars and restaurants i.e they have to close at midnight. As the Mayor and others pointed out, the overlay will not affect opening hours for existing businesses. The properties will be deemed to have an allowed non-conforming use. This use can be transferred to a new owner but if the property is used for any other purpose for 3 years or more, the non-conforming use cannot be transferred. Press Download file to see Overlay map

Council member Lewis argued that the Overlay may restrict opening hours for new businesses but this was not going to solve the problem. Patrons would simple migrate from the closed bars to those that remained open. And indeed he added that the overlay would prompt those seeking to open new bars or restaurants to move into areas outside the overlay and perhaps closer to residential areas.

Council member Wilson was concerned that the ordinance was before Council without consultation of affected owners, businesses or representative organizations. A number of ordinances had come before Council in the last year or so relating to King and Market streets and with little review by affected property owners or businesses. She had made promises that such a thing would not happen again. But she was embarrassed because here it was happening again. Mayor Riley afterward fell on his sword and took the blame for the haste. But in his defense, he said there was a need for urgency, particularly with the recent homicide at the hands of a “bunch of drunks”.

Council member Riegel opposed the ordinance largely because there had been no consultation with representatives of the food and drink vendors. He also opined that the majority of the late night patrons of these bars and restaurants were not from Charleston, but from Goose Creek, Moncks Corners and beyond. His opinion may be correct but he offered no solution.

Council member Alexander made a lengthy but reasoned speech at the close of discussion. We first thought he was opposed to the overlay. And in a sense he was. He thought it was wrong to apply an overlay just to part of the Peninsula. Bars and restaurants would migrate to other areas and where residential areas had to be protected. He thought that if an Overlay were to be proposed then it should be applied to other critical areas of the City.

Members of the public and members of some neighborhood associations supported the ordinance. Some business and property owners didn’t. The latter doubted the efficacy of the proposed ordinance and wondered about the adverse effect on property values.

We confess sympathy for those citizens who came to Council to speak against the proposal to rent 25 car parking spaces from the City to facilitate the development of a site at 80 Calhoun Street. The site is relatively small and the developer, to conform with zoning regulations, must provide for 25 “permanent” parking spaces. It hoped to lease 25 spaces for 10 years in the Gaillard Garage. The solution proposed by Council was to rent the 25 spaces, not in the Gaillard Garage but in the Aquarium Parking Garage. This was probably a worse solution in the eyes of the neighborhood groups.

The issue, and it has plagued development on the Peninsula for years, is the spill-over of parking into the neighborhoods. Maybe those working in the buildings to be constructed will park vehicles in the garages. But will casual visitors use the garage? And in this case, will they use the Aquarium facility that is some distance?

Council member Alexander and staff noted that studies had indicated the potential for better utilization of the car spaces in the City’s garages. For instance, those using the Gaillard Garage to park a car whilst at work, departed well before patrons arrived for concerts and events at the Gaillard. Although many spaces had been leased to businesses, the utilization during the day was never 100%. Presumably, the City is thinking like airline companies and moving towards “overbooking” and banking on a number of “no shows”. (I wonder whether you receive a cash payment if you can’t find a car space which has been paid for by you or your employer?)

Council did not agree to lease space in the Gaillard Garage but suggested the developer ask the BZA for a variance to seek parking in the Aquarium Garage. By City law, the parking is supposed to be within 400 feet of the development. The Aquarium Garage is considerably more. Council voted to support a request by the developer should it seek a variance.

We were amused by Council member Moody’s remarks made at the conclusion of debate on the Entertainment Overlay. What he said was true. Council spends a lot of time discussing issues and those that occur at the end of the agenda, often important, receive insufficient attention. He offered no solution. But was he suggesting that the speeches by Council members and the Mayor are too long?

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