New vision for downtown drives call for restraint

Charleston city leaders are considering further regulating an "entertainment district overlay zone" which includes King Street. Here's the scene there on Thursday night.

City leaders have a vision to turn this once-bawdy port town ainto a modern, diverse and sophisticated city, much to the chagrin of the bar and restaurant industry that's being reined in.

Local restaurateurs and bar owners objected to City Council giving initial approval this week to an ordinance that will require new businesses selling alcoholic beverages in the heart of the historic tourist and nightlife district to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m.

More than 1,600 of them have signed an online petition on But Mayor Joe Riley and most City Council members say the move is part of a larger plan to ensure the peninsula grows in a responsible and diverse way.

While there is dissent among the restaurant and bar industry about limiting alcohol sales, local leaders and urban planners agree on what a model city should be.

City leaders, in calling for a pause in new drinking establishments, are following the New Urbanism philosophy of mixed-use and livability that has led to the revitalization of decaying urban areas around the country from Brooklyn neighborhoods to the San Antonio, Texas, River Walk area, to the Stapleton neighborhood in Denver.

The ordinance would apply to 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.

"Robust and vital main streets include diversity of uses," Riley said. Restaurants and bars are important, but there also must be stores, offices, and a range of housing options including affordable housing, he said. "If you walk down a street and it's only bars, in the morning, that's not a nice place to walk."

A street first has to be a good place to live, Riley said, then it must be a nice place to work. It also should be a good place to visit, he said, but only by those looking for "a good wholesome time."

The ordinance was motivated, in part, by the dramatic increase in the number of bars on upper King Street, said City Council Chairman Bill Moody.

The city is hoping to lure technology companies to the area, he said, but they are less likely to come if it's seen as only a nightlife destination.

And bars are profitable businesses that drive up rents, he said. If the bar scene on upper King Street continues to grow, he said, "it will price out retail businesses."

Moody said that the city created the new entertainment district to also include the Market-area, and Meeting and East Bay streets in the proposed entertainment zone because all of those areas have a heavy concentration of restaurants and bars. If changes are made to just one area, problems could be pushed to another area.

Moody said City Council has been criticized for exacting control over the bar industry. But the city is known for placing limits on activity that might tarnish its reputation. "We say you can only have so many horse carriages. You can't have Segways," he added.

Councilman Mike Seekings said the increased bar traffic has become a problem.

"It's suffocating our ability to get retail and other businesses on Upper King," he said. "It's got to be more than a place to go to have lunch, dinner and a drink."

Seekings said city leaders have followed the problems of large bar districts in other cities including: River Street in Savannah, Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. "Those are three to avoid," he said.

If Charleston had a similar district, the impact would be disastrous, Seekings said. "Charleston has to be really careful because we're small. The effect is magnified."

Renowned urban planner Andres Duany said it's a widely accepted belief that diverse uses make streets and communities more stable and sustainable. "This is kindergarten," he said.

Duany is widely recognized as a leader of the New Urbanism, an international movement that seeks to end suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. He said New Urbanists look at the future of cities, and don't weigh in on current issues such as liquor ordinances.

But Charleston is experiencing disturbing trends, he said. Real estate prices are climbing, becoming so expensive many people can't afford to live there. That's increasing tourism because people who can't afford to live in the city are trying to enjoy it. And an increase in the entertainment industry is increasing tourism, he said.

If such trends aren't turned around, the city could become "a place that does not have an authentic personality," he said.

The city also must be careful not to allow any street to become like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Duany said. "Nobody wants to live in an entertainment monoculture."

Fred Kent, founder and president of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, said great cities have at least 10 strong destinations, and each of those destinations must have at least 10 things to do.

For instance, he said, the Charleston Market is an example of a destination that now has more than 10 things to do. People can shop, eat, drink, take a carriage ride and other things. It offers activities for people of all ages and is lively during the day and at night.

The Market now has a great deal of diversity, he said. "But diversity needs management and programming. It's social engineering," he said.

John Keener, the owner of the Charleston Crab House on Market Street, said he thinks the new ordinance is more about controlling alcohol sales than it is about a vision for the future. "The city is worried about what happens after midnight," he said. "What they're trying to do is shut the city down after midnight. They think that will solve all of their problems," said Keener, former president of the Charleston Restaurant Association.

The ordinance doesn't apply to existing businesses, he said, so it wouldn't impact the Crab House. But he has plans to open another downtown business, he said, and he's worried about how it might affect the new business.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction," Keener said of the ordinance. "Other cities have figured out other methods of crowd control." Charleston also could find better and safer ways to handle late-night activity, he said.

The food and beverage industry brings a lot to the city, he said, including being one of the largest employers of its residents. "But we're being punished because the city wants to recruit technology industries," he said.

Keener also said that the ordinance was developed without input from the industry. The Restaurant Association was given only a one-day notice before City Council voted 12-1 to give the ordinance initial approval.

David Miller, a partner in the Kickin' Chicken Restaurant Group, said, "It's very sad that, once again, the mayor's staff and City Council members did not seek input from the Restaurant Association and bar owners."

Miller said he's not going to attempt to oppose the plan. "With a 12-to-1 vote, you can't fight it," he said. "I just want to make sure my property is protected."

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who worked with other city leaders to draft the ordinance, said he's concerned about crime, public safety, pedestrian capacity and cleanliness in some parts of the peninsula where there's a heavy concentration of bars.

"You've got a daytime and a nighttime economy you have to work with," he said. He has to make sure people who come out to have a good time don't become victims of crime, he said. "And you don't want people throwing up in front of someone's business."

He's not opposed to people drinking alcohol, he said. But he wants people to drink responsibly. When there's a heavy concentration of bars in a particular area, there's more irresponsible drinking, and more crime, he said.

"We have to think now about what we want the city to look like in five years," he said. "If we don't, the goose that's laying the golden eggs will get sick."

The city is at a critical "tipping point" in its concentration of restaurants and bars on the peninsula, he said. "There are places all around the country that have waited too long to take steps and they're regretting it."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.