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Iowa City may lift 500-foot rule for bars outside downtown

BY NICK HASSETT | NOVEMBER 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa City restaurants outside of downtown may soon benefit from a change in the city’s zoning code — a move several downtown business owners support.

One item that could merit future discussion is an amendment to a city ordinance requiring 500 feet of space between “drinking establishments,” defined as any bar or restaurant that has its doors open between midnight and 2 a.m. The 2009 ordinance currently applies to the entire city. Existing bars were grandfathered in.

The city staff is interested in lifting the restriction on areas outside downtown that are not characterized as having a high concentration of alcohol use.

Geoff Fruin, the assistant to the city manager of Iowa City, said the primary purpose of the upcoming discussion is to explain to the council how the ordinance currently functions.

“It’s up to the council to decide what they want to do with the ordinance,” he said. “If they want to change the policy, we can recommend options.”

One such option is allowing outlying areas of Iowa City to be exempt from the ordinance. While “outlying” hasn’t been officially defined by city officials, the area would typically refer to the space outside the immediate downtown and University of Iowa campus, an area described by the city as the University Impact Area. Former city councilors were not in favor of that option, but with new councilors, proponents of the measure hope to gain support.

City Councilor Terry Dickens said he was in support of changing the ordinance.

“The ordinance as it is hurts businesses outside of downtown,” he said. “There are only so many commercial areas. It’s a matter of fairness. Separate areas should have separate rules for zoning.”

Businesses existing when the law was enacted have been exempt from the separation requirement. But any new drinking establishment would face the separation requirement when applying for a liquor license.

Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James, 118 E. Washington St., said changes to the ordinance make sense for outlying establishments, but she wanted the law kept the same for downtown.

“My biggest concern is the concentration of alcohol licenses downtown,” she said. “For outlying areas, [the ordinance] restricts a lot of nicer restaurants and neighborhood bars from coming in, but I don’t support changing anything downtown.”

However, one Iowa City bar co-owner thinks the ordinance in general is a bad idea.

Shawn Krantz, whose family owns Iowa City establishments Carl & Ernie’s Good Time Pub and Coach’s Corner, said he was for fewer ordinances restricting businesses in Iowa City. The pub is located outside downtown on Hwy. 1.

“The city should leave it up to landlords and building owners,” he said. “I understand why they’re doing it, but if the place is run right, it’s not an issue.”

Krantz said bars that tend to cause problems should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“The city can just take the liquor license away from the ones that are doing it the wrong way, not making an ordinance that affects the whole city,” he said.

Kelly Bender, the community harm reduction initiatives coordinator for the University of Iowa, said the city should evaluate the ordinance.

“The city should be realistic about where the problems are,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for a place farther away to have the same regulations as those downtown.”

However, Bender emphasized the importance of keeping the ordinance in place for downtown Iowa City, saying research has established a strong connection between alcohol-outlet density and alcohol-related crime.

Fruin said if the council decides to take action on the ordinance, the process could take several months as it moves through the standard council procedure.

“Right now, there are no proposals on the table,” he said. “It’s just a discussion item. We won’t know what will happen until Tuesday night.”


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