Panel OKs zoning change that would prevent new downtown bars

BY CHRIS CLARK | APRIL 17, 2009 7:32 AM

For those hoping to open a bar, downtown Iowa City could soon be off-limits.

After deferring a vote at its last meeting, the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously passed a measure that would prevent new bars from opening within 500 feet of another. Liquor stores would need to be 1,000 feet apart.

The measure will need approval from the Iowa City City Council before it goes into effect.
The discussion — which began with a request from the council — centered on creating a better balance of businesses downtown.

Reducing the number of drinking establishments — defined as a businesses that primarily sell food and alcohol and are open past midnight — would attract a wider variety of people to the downtown area, the city’s Associate Planner Karen Howard said.

“I’m concerned that downtown Iowa City will reach some tipping point,” said commission member Josh Busard. “It might morph strictly into an entertainment district that caters only to college students.”

The group had met last week on the issue, but it waited to vote until it heard from UI alcohol experts.

UI Provost Wallace Loh said it’s very important for city officials, university officials, and students to communicate.

“Our futures are intertwined. Our interests are intertwined,” he said. “We want Iowa City to be this incredible jewel — one of the best places to live in the country.”

Although the commission was depending on input from the UI, he said, the experts only offered scientific research — not opinions.

Although Sarah Hansen, an associate director of Health Iowa, and Professor Emeritus Peter Nathan are members of the UI’s Alcohol Steering Committee, Loh said, the two experts presented their research independently from any organization.

Hansen’s research focused on a correlation between density of drinking establishments in a community, amount of consumption, and likelihood of alcohol-induced criminal behavior.

According to her research, areas with a high density of drinking establishments tend to have higher rates of consumption. Further, she said, residents in high-density, high-consumption areas can expect higher levels of violence and crime.

“Density [of bars] does change the complexion of a community,” she told the commission.

The only student in the steering group is the elected liaison between the UI Student Government and the City Council — senior Tyler Gunn.

He said input from students is necessary to get a broader perspective, and the steering committee is considering appointing more students.

“These policy changes will not work if students don’t want to follow them,” he said.

Gunn said he hopes discussion within the committee will eventually lead to a change in Iowa City’s drinking culture — one officials have called dangerous and overwhelming.

Approximately two months ago, the UI formed the Alcohol Steering Committee to promote alcohol safety. Loh is adamant that the group only promotes safe drinking — not alcohol abstinence or closing off bars to those under 21.

The committee — made up of local business owners, city and UI officials, and a student— is co-chaired by Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey and Loh. The group will come up with recommendations for the city and the UI.

The council will set a public hearing for the issue at its meeting April 20.

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