By Margaret Smyka
Contributing Writer 

South Side reaches its limit with bars

 

Michele Margittai (left) pleas with city officials to provide the South Side with some relief from unruly bar patrons on the South Side. A full house of area residents came to the South Side Market House to ask Mayor Ravenstahl for help.

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“Taking a time-out” to decide how they will proceed is where Mayor Luke Ravenstahl stands at the moment on the problem of the proliferation of bars on the South Side.

That pronouncement followed more than an hour of complaints from community leaders and residents about the noise, crime, drugs, prostitution, litter, vandalism, public urination, graffiti and more that comes from having 100 liquor licenses in the South Side area. Four more licenses are pending.

As part of a possible strategy, the mayor said he is considering splitting up the large Zone 3 — which includes the South Side — and setting up new zones.


He is also looking at the ordinance proposed by Councilman Jeff Koch which would prohibit a bar from opening within 150 feet of any more than two existing bars in local neighborhood commercial (LNC) districts.

The mayor also wants to establish a task force to deal with the bar issue, and pledged to walk-through “Pittsburgh's Bourbon Street” — as one resident referred to it — on March 9 to see the situation for himself.

Such was the upshot of the February 28 town hall meeting which drew about 300 people to the Market House to discuss community concerns regarding bars on Carson Street.

Besides Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Koch, officials in attendance included Police Chief Nate Harper, Zone 3 Police Commander Larry Ross, Director of Economic and Community Development Pat Ford, Planning Director Noor Ismael, Zoning Administrator Jeremy Smith, and more.


Prior to the public comments, the mayor said the meeting was called to “have productive discussion” about the issues as he believes it is possible to have both a vibrant South Side and peace-and-quiet.


Mr. Koch followed with details of his proposed legislation, which he is in the process of revising after the city Planning Commission recommended disapproval on grounds it would have a negative impact on other areas of the city.

The ordinance is designed to control the density of bars in the long-term. Establishments already in operation would not be affected as it only refers to new liquor licensees.

Besides prohibiting bars from opening within 150 feet of any more than two existing bars, it contains a zoning separation for restaurants with liquor licenses and those without liquor licenses. Currently, there is no differentiation.

The number of liquor licenses in the South Side in 2006 was 96, an almost 25 percent increase from the 77 licenses in 1996. Of the 100 licenses today, 65 are for establishments on East Carson St.


The impact of so many liquor licenses has been drunken driving arrests projected by the city police to triple between 2006 and 2007, and 10 hits-and-runs of vehicles per day.

More than 3,800 calls are made to 911 each week from Zone 3, or 1,700 more than any other zone, according to former Zone 3 Commander Rashall Brackney.

Kicking off the presentations were Susan McCoy and Mary Ann Sevich of the South Side Bar Task Force, South Side Community Council.

Ms. McCoy said the worst behavior is between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., Thursday through Saturday.

She asked attendees to stand who have witnessed any of the following, prompting many residents to rise repeatedly: litter strewn on sidewalks and yards; noise; vomiting and urinating; loud music; cars parked illegally from bar patrons or valets; drug sales; sexual activity; drunks getting behind the wheels of cars; and more.

Ms. Sevich stated while the task force is not anti-bar, “we are very, very saddened by what we see happening in our neighborhood.”

The local police are perhaps stretched too thin, she said, and the state police have only eight officers assigned to liquor code enforcement, and it takes 30 days to file a complaint.

Without adequate enforcement, she said, visitors to the South Side believe they can do as they wish without consequences.

“We are turning into the Wild West,” she said.

Potential remedies include: splitting Zone 3 and/or increasing the number of city officers; a Business Improvement District in which business property owners pay a “tax” to maintain the district; Good Neighbor Agreements between business owners and the city on conditions for maintaining licenses; and Conditional Use Permits in which establishments may have their occupancy permits suspended for not meeting occupancy requirements.

But the latter three, attempted elsewhere, require money to set up and enforce, and will not address the uncontrolled proliferation of bars, she said.

Instead, she said, zoning is a necessary first step toward stabilizing the situation.

The proposed zoning ordinance will grandfather-in the current 100 licenses, and with the revision that it will apply to LNCs over 4,000 lineal feet, only five neighborhoods will be affected, she said.

In his remarks, Hugh Brannan, chair of the South Side Planning Forum, said the South Side has become a “regional entertainment Mecca,” which all forum groups agree has given rise to problems.

In her remarks, Toni Gorenc, president of the board of directors of the South Side Local Development Co., said it is their belief that a solution must include a combination of strategies, and called for the formation of a task force to address the situation.

Tom Smith, president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber agrees something needs to be done about the problem, but that a zoning change is not the answer.

He said the possibility of a zoning change has kept some businesses from moving to the area. Instead, the chamber would like to see existing laws enforced.

Tom Barry, president of the South Side Bar and Restaurant Association, said that four years ago the state Liquor Control Board changed the laws to allow the inter-municipal transfer of liquor licenses, resulting in today's one liquor license for every 60 residents in the South Side.

“We need a timeout here,” he said of the influx of bars into the area.

Resident Bruce Kraus said when he was growing up there were neighborhood bars in South Side. Today, they are “mega bars” and “college bars” that are destination points.

If two percent of the patrons are drunk, he said, that means there are 200 drunken drivers in the neighborhood, and “that is unacceptable.”

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Councilman Jeff Koch listen to problems South Siders have with too many unruly bar patrons in the neighborhood.

“This is the crown jewel of Pittsburgh,” he said of South Side, “and we need to restore it.”

 

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