January 16, 2007 |

Zoning isn't the way to win the bar war

On Tuesday, Jan. 23 the Pittsburgh Planning Commission will consider making a change to zoning in Local Neighborhood Commercial (LNC) districts that among other things would place limitations on the number of liquor licenses that could be located in the district.

On the surface, the change in zoning is appealing to members of the South Side Community Council's Bar Task Force and members of the South Side community at large. The change would prohibit a third liquor license to be located if it is within 150 feet of two existing liquor licenses.

Some portions of East Carson Street and South Side in general are already inundated with bars and restaurants with liquor licenses and the problems that come with drinking establishments that are popular with young people. Residents complain frequently about noise, litter, vandalism and public urination, particularly from Thursday nights through the weekends.

In response to pressure from the Bar Task Force, Councilman Jeffrey Koch had legislation drafted that could limit the number of bars coming into the South Side in the future. In addition to differentiating between restaurants and restaurants with liquor licenses (there is no such thing as a bar), the legislation aims to prevent with zoning a third liquor license from locating within 150 feet of two existing licenses.

Members of the Bar Task Force make a passionate argument for limiting new liquor licenses: South Side already has 25 percent of the liquor licenses in the city; there are more liquor licenses in the neighborhood now than there were 10 years ago; drunk driving arrests are expected to triple in the South Side this year; and, successful bars tend to attract more bars in the same vicinity, among others.

Looking at the proposed legislation from the viewpoint of the Bar Task Force, it's a no brainer, who wouldn't support the change. With a minor zoning change few if any bars could open up in the South Side, drunk driving would go down and litter and public urination would disappear from the Flats. If things were only that simple.

Because there is no such thing as a bar liquor license, only a restaurant liquor license, the city is unable to differentiate between a predominately drinking establishment and a fine dining restaurant with a liquor license. They will be treated the same under the change in zoning. While the proposed change in zoning could keep out another Town Tavern with a capacity of 600, it would also keep out another Mallorica if either tried to locate in most blocks between 10th and 29th along E. Carson Street.

An increase in drunk driving arrests in South Side may or may not be linked to the increase in liquor licenses. It could be a result of stepped up enforcement of the drunk driving laws on the books. At a recent meeting of the South Side Planning Forum, Commander RaShall Brackney related that the police had stepped up drunk driving stops in the Flats, bringing in a drunk driving task force as much as twice a month to stop intoxicated drivers, often on the Birmingham Bridge.

The change in zoning isn't a quick fix to the residents' problems with the bars on the South Side. It can't take away the liquor licenses of existing bars and may have had resulted in increasing the value of existing liquor licenses. City officials hope that as existing bars go out of business the liquor license will be sold and moved out of the South Side. A process that could take decades to decrease the number of bars.

The change in zoning while emotional for some would have little impact on the South Side in the near future. But the proposed change would affect other neighborhoods throughout the city. What it may do is prevent a bar (or restaurant with a liquor license) from coming into a LNC district in a neighborhood that would have welcomed the new business, that could have used the economic impact brought by a new business.

The Bar Task Force has taken positive steps to talk to officials at city universities to address the conduct of their students on the South Side. The bars have to be more proactive in letting their patrons know they are in a neighborhood and to behave in a more civilized manner when returning home.

The state also has to step up and increase the number of State Police that enforce liquor license violations to more than eight officers that it currently uses.

While the change in zoning has the outward appearance of being proactive, it will do little to solve the existing problems and could have desirable restaurants looking elsewhere for a new location.

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