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Koch legislation poised to limit liquor licenses

 

July 17, 2007



After several missteps along the way, City Councilman Jeff Koch's legislation aimed at limiting the number of bars along East Carson Street is one step closer to becoming law in Pittsburgh.

The legislation aims to prevent more bars from coming onto East Carson while over the long term decreasing the number of liquor licenses along the South Side Local Neighborhood Commercial (LNC) District from the current 57 down to 53. The bill also clarifies and differentiates for zoning purposes what constitutes a restaurant and a restaurant with a liquor license.

The legislation, if passed, will set a critical saturation point for LNC districts of 2 million square feet or greater, limiting it to one bar for every 50,000 square feet in the district. There are three LNCs in the city that will fall under new guidelines: Butler Street, Penn Avenue and East Carson Street.

Of the three, only South Side has reached the saturation point with both the Lawrenceville and Garfield LNCs being able to accommodate dozens more liquor licenses under the new legislation.

In addition, the law provides a provision that after reaching the saturation point a restaurant may still apply for a conditional use, or special exemption, to open with a liquor license. Among the things considered for the conditional use permit will be for the building to have been constructed prior to 1999, the impact on the community and if there is sufficient parking.

Councilman Koch prefaced the public testimony by explaining that it has been a year since South Side residents first came to him with complaints about noise, litter and violence associated with the high density of bars in the neighborhood.

"I learned that quite a few liquor licenses were issued in spite of being protested," he stated.

In its early drafts, the legislation was drawn too broadly and included every LNC district in the city, bringing protests from other neighborhoods. As the change in the law became more refined the scope became more limited and eventually came to the final version which was approved by the city's Planning Commission recently.

"I consider the legislation to be fair," Councilman Koch said. "It offers bar and restaurant owners a process that they can still apply for a liquor license."

Councilman Jim Motznik questioned the legality of the legislation and if it would pass a legal challenge. Susan Tymoczko, from the Department of City Planning, said the legislation was similar to laws in other municipalities and it was expected that it would pass a legal challenge.

Concerned with all the smaller LNC districts of less than 2 million square feet, Councilman Bill Peduto asked how they would be affected. Ms. Tymoczko said the smaller LNCs would continue to be treated the same way they are now, there would be no changes for them.

Councilwoman Tonya Payne questioned whether there was opposition from businesses in other communities.

Ms. Tymoczko said the "practical impact" of the legislation was that South Side was the only district that would be affected and that other communities weren't opposing the change.

Council President Doug Shields expressed concerns about the legality of the legislation and said he had researched the proposal independently. He cautioned to use some restraint and that "(we don't) want to subject ourselves to a lawsuit we may lose." However, he added that "ultimately this will be decided in court."

Citing cases he researched, Mr. Shields said that with anything that there is state-wide jurisdiction over, such as firearms and liquor, the city's attempts to regulate would be preempted by the state constitution.

"The public understands that if this legislation is passed, it will be challenged," the councilman added.

A representative from the city's Law Department said the department was involved in the current draft of the legislation and was confident that the bill could withstand a challenge.

"We're not trying to prevent them from getting a liquor license, we're trying to regulate zoning," he said.

Tom Halloran, from the Mayor's Office, said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl supported the legislation designed to protect the three largest LNC districts in the city. He also noted the proposed ordinance change doesn't exclude additional liquor licenses from opening in the districts.

Speaking briefly in support of the legislation were representatives from Lawrenceville and Friendship, Kelly Hoffman and Matt DeLuca, respectively. The remaining neighborhood speakers were from South Side or represented South Side organizations.

Nick Kefal noted that the one year anniversary of contacting Councilman Koch was approaching. He went on to say that the state liquor code permits "municipalities to safeguard a community with zoning."

Calling the legislation a "modest proposal" he pointed out that it takes into concern the interested parties because after reaching the saturation point it provides an avenue for appeal for a restaurant to open with a liquor license.

"If anyone wants to put in a restaurant, with a liquor license, I would say, ‘come on down,'" he added.

In supporting the legislation, Susan McCoy pointed out that there were 11 new bars on the South Side in the last year and a half. She said many of the bars and their patrons have "broken every rule on the books."

Citing the "wild west atmosphere" on the South Side that was prevalent particularly on the weekends, she said it has increased drug use and prostitution in the community.

Mary Ann Sevick, speaking for the South Side Community Council, told the council that at one time there was a state law limiting liquor licenses to one for every 3,000 people in a community. Using those guidelines, the South Side Flats would be limited to fewer than a dozen liquor licenses.

She said the proliferation of bars in the South Side has had a "dramatic detrimental effect on our neighborhood."

"We have an enforcement problem," Ms. Sevick said but added, "We have seen some improvement from the stepped up enforcement."

She talked about an often heard argument from the Liquor Control Board, that people have invested their life savings into their (bars) and should be permitted to earn a livelihood.

"The community should not be held hostage by bad business decisions by some," she stated.

"Despite popular belief, the South Side is not just an entertainment district," began Michele Margittai. She was amazed by the indifference of some (bar patrons) toward the South Side residents. Among the concerns she described were loud and unruly revelers, constant public urination and vomiting and public nudity.

"During the day and most weeknights the South Side is a great place to live," she said.

"Too much success of the wrong kind has spoiled it," said John Martine, architect and long-time South Side resident of his neighborhood. He spoke of the rebirth of South Side in the 70s with the "Old Birmingham" program and the beginning of the Main Street Program.

However, Mr. Martine told city council, "it's not the main street that it could be, should be."

Bruce Kraus, Democratic nominee for the District 3 city council seat, said he would like to see legislation on a state level that would limit the transfer of liquor licenses within wards, not counties.

"If the state has the ultimate voice, at what point does it become the city's responsibility to enforce this," he asked.

Mary Ellen Leigh was "disturbed at the rapid decline of the South Side." She said Carson Street, once known as the "historic mile" is now being called the "bar mile." She blamed a "quick buck attitude" for the atmosphere that is pervasive in the neighborhood now.

"Since no one seems to care about it, why bother to use the toilets, put litter in the trash cans," she said. "Please, no more bars to dim the luster of the heritage of the neighborhood."

Patrick Ford, community development director for the city, told the council that the mayor understands the legislation is one piece of the puzzle to solve South Side's problems with bars. He said it will also take cooperation between the city, the police and the community, working together to make progress.

Councilman Peduto said he would be voting for the bill when it comes up, but he also had some concerns. He said he will be looking at the smaller areas and the smaller LNCs and how bars impact them.

"I want to eliminate all possibility of a bar or restaurant in our parks," he added. "I want trees in our parks."

"South Side is probably one of the greatest neighborhoods in the city," Councilman Shields said. The "residential character" of the city, such as the housing boom in the South Side, is what has brought the city back from financial distress according to the councilman. "It's not political leadership that kept us together."

"I'll vote for this," he said. "But unless we keep half the police force over there on the South Side nothing is going to change."

He also cautioned, "you will not survive a court case on this issue."

According to the councilman, the city is prohibited against legislating against two of the most lethal commodities, guns and liquor. To make headway against the proliferation of bars in the neighborhood, the city will have to look to the Liquor Control Board.

"The Liquor Control Board is allowed to say no more liquor licenses," he said.

"If it's out of control, where's the LCB," Councilman Shields continued. "They're the cause of your pain."

He added that all the city could do was preserve the status quo and that ultimately the legislation will be overturned. "But we have to do something."

The legislation will be discussed in executive session this week before being brought up for a vote next week. It is expected to pass when it comes up for a final vote on July 24.

 

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