Council advances new curbs on booze New businesses may close at midnight

File/Grace Beahm/Staff Charleston City Council tonight will vote for the first time on an ordinance would require new businesses selling alcholoic beverages to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m.Existing establishments could continue to stay open until 2 a.m.

New businesses selling alcoholic beverages in the heart of the historic tourist and nightlife district likely will have to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m., after the Charleston City Council Tuesday gave the plan initial approval.

The ordinance creates an "entertainment district overlay zone," which includes the Market area and some areas along East Bay Street, all of King Street and much of Meeting Street. It would restrict some business activity within the zone, including prohibiting new businesses from serving alcohol after midnight. Many local restaurant and bar owners are opposed to it.

The ordinance was approved with a 12-1 vote. Only Councilman Dean Riegel was opposed. The Council must take two more votes on the plan.

The statute also would prohibit many businesses within it from operating between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., including food stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars and other establishments that sell alcohol. It would not apply to eating and drinking facilities within establishments that have more than 20 living or sleeping units.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, preservation and sustainability, sent a memorandum to council members last week telling them about the plan.

"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," it stated. While the city has many good places to eat and drink, "too much of anything can be harmful."

It's important to strike a balance on the peninsula between the kinds of activities that are appealing to visitors and those that are important to people who live and work there, it said

When businesses that now are allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. are sold, the new owner also can stay open until 2 a.m., Riley said. The purpose of the ordinance is to keep the number of such businesses from growing, he said.

"It's not an easy job maintaining the quality of our special city," Riley said, "but it's our job and our responsibility."

Riegel said he thinks the plan is being rushed. "I feel in my heart that we owe it to the food and beverage industry to at least ask for their input," he said.

City Councilman Mike Seekings said he supports the plan, which is meant to "push the pause button" on the kind of business growth that is happening on the peninsula. The ordinance will help the peninsula to grow in a more balanced way, he said. "We can't just keep increasing the number of tourists."

He knows there will be a great deal of public interest in the plan, he said. But it's important because it's part of larger plans currently underway for the peninsula. Those plans include improvements for mobility, traffic, tourism and livability. "This is the biggest thing we've taken up in a long time," he said.

Kathy Britzius, director of the 300-member Charleston Restaurant Association, said she came to the meeting to learn more about the city's position on the matter. But her group is opposed to the change. "We would like to see it stay the way it is," she said. It puts people who want to open new businesses and who are considering buying property in a difficult position.

If the ordinance passes the next two readings, it likely will have an impact on the thriving upper King Street area.

The burgeoning food and beverage scene there is perhaps the most evident sign of how much the nearly mile-long corridor from Calhoun to Line streets has transformed in the past decade into a true Midtown for the city. While the new businesses have brought in millions of dollars to the city of Charleston, the growth also raises concerns about policing the area, its effect on nearby neighborhoods, and the potential for development to uproot and displace longstanding businesses.

Brooks Reitz is the general manager of The Ordinary and an owner of Leon's Oyster Shop, two restaurants that have opened in the past year on upper King Street. Reitz also is in the midst of opening St. Alban, another restaurant on the rapidly developing corridor above Calhoun Street.

The restaurateur said that while the new zoning ordinance may not affect his businesses, he wouldn't exactly support the zoning change, either.

"It just impacts Charleston's economy because a lot of business happens after midnight on King Street," he said. "My stance is that I'd rather operate responsibly and have the freedom to stay open later."

Abigail Darlington contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.