City seeking right bar mix downtown


Thad Allender /

The newly renovated entrance at the Red Lyon. The Lawrence city commission appears poised to limit the number of new bars downtown but wants any regulations to avoid unitended consequences.

Downtown bar owner Charles Whitman figures there's one scenario worse for downtown than having too many bars.

"It's (being) empty, of anything," the Bourgeois Pig co-owner said Wednesday at City Hall. "Empty would be infinitely worse than any number of bars downtown."

The Lawrence City Commission appears to agree.

Commissioners moved closer Wednesday to rules that would limit new bars downtown, but they did so cautiously, saying they wanted to avoid "unintended consequences."

"Part of this question is, 'How much is too much?'" Commissioner Boog Highberger said of the number of downtown drinking establishments. "I don't think we have the information we need. ... I'm not convinced we're there yet."

Underage concerns
And a majority of commissioners backed away from Commissioner David Schauner's suggestion the city should create new restrictions to keep patrons under age 21 out of some establishments. Such restrictions, his colleagues said, could harm music venues like The Bottleneck that draw business and national bands to Lawrence.

"It's my sense that the number of bars we have, not just downtown, can only exist if we have a certain percentage of underage drinking taking place," Schauner said.

He got no support from his fellow commissioners.

"I'm real concerned if we do that, we shoot ourselves in the foot," Commissioner Sue Hack said.

Mixed-use district
Wednesday's study session on the issue came as commissioners grew increasingly concerned in recent months they have granted too many alcohol licenses for downtown establishments. Commissioners say they don't want bars to shove out small stores, offices and other tenants in and around Massachusetts Street.

"We want to maintain a mix of uses," Mayor David Dunfield said. "We want to make sure whatever regulation we do downtown is aimed at maintaining that diverse mix of uses."

There are 44 licensed establishments downtown, officials said.

Among the measures the City Commission asked staff to research:

  • Zoning limits on the number of bars per block in the downtown area.
  • Additional auditing requirements for bars that barely clear the food sales requirement. Bars that have opened since 1994 must make at least 55 percent of their revenue from food.
  • Rules to prevent conversion of older restaurants into bars. Because Paradise Cafe had a drinking license before the 1994 law, it was "grandfathered" in and allowed to convert to a bar late last year before going out of business. Commissioners don't want that repeated.
  • Repeal of a requirement that generally prohibits alcohol sales within 400 feet of a church, possibly to be replaced with a new rule that would prevent bars from encroaching into residential neighborhoods.

Staff said research on the issues could be completed within weeks.

Unintended consequences
Phil Bradley, a former planning commissioner and now executive director of the Kansas Licensed Beverage Assn., said commissioners were to be applauded for trying to keep a mix of businesses downtown.

"I think they're trying to do an honorable thing," Bradley said after attending the meeting. "But they need to be exceedingly cautious of the unintended consequences."


From left, Mathew Alber, Aaron Clark, Tom Deeb and Kadi Kerr, all from Lawrence, share conversation over beers outside the Bourgeois Pig, 6 E. 9th.

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Assn., warned commissioners that limiting bars downtown might push alcohol sales to other parts of the city.

"Our other concern is the migration of bars to North Lawrence," he said.

And Whitman said after the meeting that bars have been good for downtown.

"I would suggest nothing has done more to preserve downtown than liquor licenses," he said. "There are any number of buildings that were empty and derelict that are now vibrant, tax-producing entities."


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