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Saturday March 25th 2023

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That's what she said

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Fixing the Hill’s Alcohol Problem


Hill on Saturday eveningProposed changes to the land use provisions of the Boulder municipal code are ultimately likely to accomplish two things: reduce alcohol consumption in the commercial area of University Hill and other parts of Boulder, and diversify the mixture of commercial uses on the Hill, a majority of a panel of informed citizens and a city staff member maintained at a PLAN-Boulder forum on Friday, August 16. However, one panelist, Bill Shrum, contended that the proposals would have little positive effect on alcohol use or commercial development on the Hill and would burden bar owners with onerous, new requirements.

Most the proposed revisions are rather complicated and technical in nature. In general, the city staff has developed a draft ordinance that would establish new definitions for restaurants, late night restaurants, taverns, neighborhood pubs or bistros, and brewpubs; demand a higher level of city review for some of these watering holes before they open; and stiffen the current requirements for “good neighbor meetings” and “management plans.” The city is also proposing that the 500 foot “buffer zone” prohibiting alcohol sales around the main CU campus be altered so that the current exception allowing hotel and restaurant liquor licensees to operate in the zone is replaced with an exception allowing wine and beer licensees to operate there. Since existing uses would be “grandfathered”—and alcoholic beverage licenses can be transferred, the changes would be slow to cause an impact.

The panelists consisted of Crystal Gray, former deputy major of Boulder, current Planning Board member, and a prominent Whittier neighborhood activist; Karl Guiler, a planner with the Department of Community Planning and Sustainability; Bill Shrum, former chair of the University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission, a former business manager, and a former and current business owner on the Hill; and  Lisa Spalding, a member of the Beverage Licensing Authority  who has been instrumental in the University Hill Neighborhood Association.

Guiler said that the City Council had directed the planning staff in February to study and draft potential municipal code changes. He said that the proposals had been reviewed and commented upon by the Beverage Licensing Authority and the Planning Board and were scheduled for a public hearing before the City Council on October 15.

None of the panelists predicted that the proposals would eliminate over-consumption of alcohol by college students and their contemporaries on the Hill and other parts of the city. They acknowledged that house parties would remain a major source of alcohol, particularly for those under age 21. House parties need to be much better controlled, they agreed. But most of the panel believed that campaign should not delay the land-use changes. Spalding asserted, though, that in recent years the police have been more vigorous in ending unruly house parties, and she noted that it is much simpler for the cops to close a house party than to close a bar.

Spalding pointed to hard liquor consumption and 2:00 a.m. bar closings as the source of a disproportionate amount of the surrounding neighborhood’s grievances about the Hill. She recommended that everyone in the audience ride along with the police for a night and witness the “scene” when the bars close. It almost always generates lots of noise, trash, illness, and general carousing, and sometimes violence, and requires substantial police attention, she indicated.

She claimed that Boulder bars tend to “over-serve” their customers with generous portions of hard liquor and that “drink specials” are common features. “Boulder is a drinking destination for the entire area around us,” Spalding declared. She contended that if the bars reduce their hard liquor sales and curb the late-night hours during which they are made, Boulder will lose much of its allure as a regional drinking center and the bad behaviors of the 2:00 a.m. bar closings will be largely precluded.

Guiler noted that there are currently 19 liquor licenses for the commercial area of the Hill, which essentially covers only a block and a half. Shrum said that 45% of the square footage of commercial spaces on the Hill is occupied by bars and restaurants. Guiler asserted that many complaints about public drunkenness are caused by restaurants ending food service at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. and “morphing” into bars that stay open until 2 a.m.

The proposed revisions would require restaurants to close by 11:00 p.m. and to obtain at least 50% of their revenues over the course of any 30 day period from the sale of food—much higher than the Colorado state liquor law mandate that at least 25% of revenues over the course of a year derive from the sale of food. Those amendments, Guiler said, should correct the “morphing” phenomenon.

The revisions would create a new definition for ‘neighborhood pubs or bistros’ and mandate that they close at midnight. They would only be allowed to hold beer and wine licenses.

Brewpubs and taverns would not be permitted in residential zones. In interface zones they would automatically undergo use reviews by the city council. Restaurants larger than 1,500 square feet would not be allowed in residential zones and would be subject to use reviews in mixed-use and business zones and conditional review by staff in downtown zones. Many “hospitality establishments” (restaurants, late night restaurants, taverns, neighborhood pubs and bistros, and brewpubs) would undergo conditional review by the staff. All “hospitality establishments” in interface zones would have to hold “good neighbor” meetings, prepare detailed “management plans,” and make them readily accessible to the public.

Late night restaurants would be intended to serve primarily workers at other “hospitality establishments.”  They would be permitted only in some business and downtown zones and would be subject to conditional review.

Gray contended that the new definitions and review requirements would interject more certainty into the city’s land-use approval process with respect to “hospitality establishments” and spare neighborhood associations from having to mobilize against every new, proposed watering hole. “Careful land use is key,” she declared, with respect to lessening the harmful impacts of “hospitality establishments” on neighborhoods.

Spalding provided historical details about alcohol regulation in Boulder—mostly from an account that Hill resident Bill Marine wrote several years ago. Among numerous other facts, she related that in 1987 the state’s drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 and that the City Council voted 5-4 to impose a 500-foot “buffer zone” on alcohol sales around CU’s main campus, but to exempt hotel and restaurant license-holders from the prohibition. She inferred that the apparent rationale for this decision was that hotel and restaurant licensees were required to derive 25% of their revenues from food sales, while beer and wine licenses impose no food sale standard. She explained that the current proposal to replace hotel and restaurant licenses with beer and wine licenses would diminish the consumption of hard liquor, which she regards as the crux of the current problem.

Spalding noted that all of the Hill commercial spaces, except for the Flatirons Theater building, fall within 500 feet of the campus. She remarked that it is not accidental that the only liquor store on the Hill—Rose Hill Wine & Spirits—is located in the Flatirons Theater building.

Shrum pointed out that Café Aion, generally recognized as the best restaurant in the Hill, sits within the 500-foot buffer, and, if were starting anew, would be restricted to a beer and wine license. Shrum claimed that the Café Aion’s owner had told him that he would not have opened his business if the proposed amendments had been in effect then. Spalding countered that diners increasingly favor beer and wine with their meals at good restaurants, rather than hard liquor, and that, if they wanted cocktails before dinner, it would be easy enough to stop off at a bar or drink at home beforehand.

Gray recounted the struggles of many Whittier neighborhood residents with the Rio Grande at 17th and Pearl and the Barrel House at 18th and Pearl. She said that as a result of these battles, the City Council created an “interface” zone that required a restaurant or bar that proposed closing at 2 a.m. to undergo a “use review” before the City Council.

She related that the Rio Grande and the Barrel House both moved away, the number of restaurants operating on east Pearl Street has tripled, the commercial area is thriving, and the neighborhood is admired for being “walkable.”  The restaurants close at 10:30, she said. She predicted that ending hard liquor sales by 11 p.m. or so would ultimately enhance the commercial environment of the Hill.

Shrum, who said he is currently enrolled in the graduate city planning program at CU, claimed that CU students avoid drinking on the Hill because they consider it to be dull. He asserted that they favor bars on or near the Pearl Street Mall. He also argued that the type of restaurants that flourish on east Pearl Street could not succeed on the Hill, because the local population lacks the means to patronize them.

Shrum contended that the proposed revisions would have very little effect on alcohol consumption in Boulder. He claimed that studies by the International Town-Gown Association—which, he said, has “certified” him—had shown that new regulations in college towns had failed to lower alcohol usage by more than five percent. He asserted that the proposed changes in Boulder would “compromise the commercial viability” of the Hill, while yielding minimal, societal benefits. Shrum also claimed that the records of alcohol and food sales that the amendments would compel restaurants to keep would be unfair and oppressive.

Shrum observed that rents “are extremely high on the Hill,” running about $30 a square foot. Very few businesses, other than bars, can afford those rates, he commented. However, he claimed that residential spaces now command rents of about $40 a square foot on the Hill, and speculated that the commercial area will probably eventually be transformed into a residential one. Shrum also remarked that most of the commercial spaces on the Hill are relatively small and that many retailers do not find them to be suitable in size.

Spalding concurred that hotel and restaurant licensees on the Hill are one of the only types of businesses that can afford the current rents. However, she predicted that if liquor sales there are curtailed, the licensees will be unable to pay the rents, the rents will be lowered, and more retail stores and other uses will be able to take root there.

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