By Dwayne Green
Every municipal policy decision involves a value judgment. The judgments are not always between right and wrong and can often be subjective, particularly when it concerns the type of vices a city wants to eliminate or benefits it wants to attract.
Most reasonable people can agree that unchecked noise, pollution, or crowding in a limited urban space is a bad thing. However when noise, pollution, or crowds are financially beneficial to a city, difficult choices are often made. And those choices do not always reflect the wishes of residents or even the business community.
For instance, the City of Charleston made a choice when it decided that despite the crowds and pollution that cruise ships bring, the benefit of additional tourist dollars makes those negative side effects worth it. It didn’t matter that many residents feared Charleston would become the next Key West or experience increased traffic congestion. It didn’t matter that historic preservation organizations filed lawsuits against the cruise line or that they commissioned studies to show that the economic impact from cruise visitors were not as beneficial to local businesses as the city claimed. Despite the outcry, Mayor Riley and company decided that the benefits from the cruise ships were worth the traffic and the congestion, the complaints and the lawsuits. Charleston even went as far as to join with a cruise line in a lawsuit. That decision was the result of a value judgment.
Now there is another value judgment being made by the City of Charleston. In this case, Mayor Riley and his administration believe that the tax revenue from bars and restaurants is not worth the additional noise, congested streets, and pollution caused by patrons, particularly between the hours of 12 a.m. and 2 a.m. If the rationale for the new midnight closing ordinance is to be believed, we have reached a tipping point where the addition of new establishments would greatly damage the quality of life for some, but not all or even most, of the city’s residents. This judgment has been made despite the fact that capital investment for new bars, restaurants, and hotels in the so-called Entertainment Overlay District have skyrocketed, much to the city’s financial benefit.
Years ago, the City of Charleston had a vested interest in attracting new businesses to then-suffering Upper King Street and the Market area. Not too long ago, Upper King was not a safe place to wander after dark, and even further back, the Market area used to be described as seedy. But the city had a plan. Power lines were put underground. Businesses were asked to contribute to fancy bluestone sidewalks. Stores which were falling apart, like the old Condon’s Department Store, were transformed into apartments for college students and recent graduates. And slowly the tide began to turn. Today, both areas are bustling hubs of activity, day and night.
When the new luxury apartments along King and Meeting streets are able to successfully charge the high rents that they do, it is because of their proximity to Upper King and the bars and restaurants that call the area home. When bar owners invest hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating buildings on Upper King that just five years ago were deserted storefronts, it is because the City of Charleston succeeded in its efforts to attract business. Those investments worked because today Upper King and the Market are areas where young professionals, recent college grads, and tourists want to be. They spend money to eat, drink, and live where there is a vibrant nightlife. So how is it fair for those policy makers to arbitrarily draw a line in the sand and say that the crowds are now too much for the sidewalks to handle? Is there a study that we all somehow missed? And exactly how does the city square its opposition to new bars and its unwavering support for cruise ships and a new downtown cruise ship terminal despite the public outcry?