December 21, 2009 |

Bar legislation overturned, South Side expects influx of new liquor licenses

In the two years since the city passed legislation to limit liquor licenses to one per 50,000 square feet in Local Neighborhood Commercial (LNC) districts, little has changed in South Side and now the biggest change could be an influx of new alcohol serving establishments in the neighborhood.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph James recently ruled that the city exceeded its authority in trying to limit the number of bars in a neighborhood and ordered the city to grant the permits to serve alcohol to the two businesses on which the suit was based. The city was ordered to grant Baba D's Middle Eastern restaurant a conditional use permit and also issue the needed city permits for James Quinn's proposed business in the 1000 block of East Carson to serve alcohol.

Dourrid Aboud, whose parents opened Baba D's more than a year ago, said his family is "happy and excited" about the judge's decision.

"We'll finally be able to compete with all our neighbors," he said. "We're waiting for the state to get the paperwork back (to be able to sell alcohol in the restaurant). It's just a procedure."

District 3 Councilman Bruce Kraus isn't happy about the judge's ruling and has resubmitted the legislation with changes in an attempt to stay an expected onslaught of liquor license applications and transfers into the South Side entertainment zone. The councilman said he believes that while the legislation is pending a moratorium is in place on granting the required zoning for new liquor serving establishments.

"All conversations are about our financial and fiduciary responsibility dictated by the state. According to Judge James, you can put a liquor license in any storefront and it's the city's responsibility [to pay for public safety services]," Mr. Kraus said.

The problem extends beyond the East Carson Street corridor. According to the councilman, many nights the entire Zone 3 police district, 14 neighborhoods, is patrolled by only 11 officers. If officers are taking care of alcohol related problems on South Side they aren't in the other neighborhoods, the councilman maintains.

"We better figure out a better way to manage it," he said.

Acknowledging the bars on Carson Street are a "cash cow" for the city in tax revenue including not only business taxes but property and wage taxes the councilman says they have to figure out a better way to keep things under control. He also lamented that the city doesn't share in the drink tax that is collected by Allegheny County.

If the bar crowd isn't put under control, the entertainment scene will move to another neighborhood, he warned. Mr. Kraus said the same thing happened when the bar crowd moved from Oakland to the Strip and from the Strip to South Side. "Public safety concerns dictate that shift."

"You take a business district that was intended to service the neighborhood and you turn it into something else," he said.

Councilman Kraus is also worried that Judge James ruling could open the floodgates in allowing liquor licenses onto Carson Street.

"We could get one a year, 10 a year or 30 a year," he said. "I've never known a liquor license to be turned down [by the state].

Citing the high number of liquor serving establishments on South Side, the councilman asked why there isn't a plan in the business district to manage alcohol related behavior and its problems. He asked why there aren't cab stands and shuttles to help keep legally intoxicated patrons from driving.

Using a base of as many as 20,000 bar patrons in South Side on any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, the councilman said it would be a conservative estimate that only two percent of those patrons are legally drunk. Using his estimates, there could be as many as 400 legally drunk drivers on South Side on any given weekend night.

"It's not a South Side problem, it's a District 3, a Zone 3 problem," he repeated.

The councilman wondered where the city could come up with the money to manage the problems when the state has control over all alcohol related concerns. He said that State Sen. Wayne Fontana has sponsored a bill that would allow Pittsburgh to review every liquor license transfer in the city. The bill has stalled for now.

"All I'm asking for is to have a say," Mr. Kraus said.

The bar limiting ordinance was an important aspect to creating stability in the neighborhood explained Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Company. "It [helped] to create a sense of balance."

Mr. Belloli said the SSLDC plans to continue working with City Planning along with South Side residents and businesses to ensure a balance is maintained and improved in the business district.

Joe Bielecki, president of the South Side Community Council, was also disappointed in Judge James ruling. Members of the council were highly involved in working with then councilman Jeff Koch on the bar limiting legislation.

"The neighborhood is really oversaturated," he said. "If the tavern keepers would be responsible, it would be a lot better here. It's way past the saturation point."

Nancy Eshelman, president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment as a chamber officer saying the board hasn't had an opportunity to discuss the ruling yet. However, as a resident and business owner on South Side, she said the problem wasn't necessarily the number of bars, but rather the conduct of the bar patrons.

She said she would like to see the bar and restaurant owners become more involved in operating problem free establishments. Ms. Eshelman named several along East Carson Street as outstanding businesses including Piper's Pub and Fathead's Saloon.

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