City looking to amend 500-foot spacing ordinance

BY KRISTEN EAST | JULY 19, 2013 5:00 AM

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The story of bars closing has become a familiar narrative in downtown Iowa City since officials passed several ordinances targeting the growth of drinking establishments.

But city officials now say one of these laws, which restricts these types of businesses from opening within 500 feet of one another, is preventing the economic growth of outlying areas in Iowa City.

The Iowa City City Council enacted an ordinance in 2009 that restricted new drinking establishments from being built within 500 feet of another such establishment. The ordinance aimed to reduce the amount of underage drinking, violence, and crime in areas throughout the city where a concentration of drinking establishments exist.

Though officials now believe those highly concentrated areas are now limited to the University Impact Area — which includes downtown Iowa City — and the entirety of the Riverfront Crossings District.

The City Council will consider the first consideration of an ordinance on Tuesday amending this ordinance to eliminate the spacing requirement in all other areas of the city.

“It has come to our attention … that the broad application of the 500-foot spacing requirement to outlying commercial areas may be unduly restricting economic development opportunities in area where an unhealthy concentration of drinking establishments is unlikely to occur,” Karen Howard, an associate city planner, wrote in a memo to city officials.

Howard writes that a number of sit-down restaurants with liquor licenses coexist in the same area, and those businesses are vital to creating and preserving neighborhood-serving commercial areas.

“Since many of the outlying commercial areas are fairly compact in size, the 500-foot spacing requirement presents an obstacle to development if more than one or two restaurants would like to locate in the same commercial area and stay open late during bar hours [midnight to 2 a.m.],” Howard wrote.

When asked if any bars or restaurants in the outlying areas had reached out to the city, Howard said she wasn’t aware of any specific cases.

Howard also noted that the ordinance helped city officials accomplish what they originally set out to do — among other things, preventing new bars from cropping up in downtown Iowa City.

A handful of downtown bars closed down following the implementation of the 21-ordinance, including Vito’s, One-Eyed Jakes, and 808 Restaurant & Night Club.

With drinking establishments unable to open in the spaces left vacant by these bars, downtown Iowa City saw the emergence of what some would call a more diversified downtown, with a mix of retail and office space settling in these locations.

FilmScene — a nonprofit, independent cinema organization — will open this fall on the first floor of the former Vito’s building. Other downtown spaces, such as the Library’s former location at 113 E. College St., remain vacant.

“The community has benefitted from the opportunity created by the ordinance for a greater mix of business downtown as a few nonconforming bars have gone out of business and have been replaced by retail and office uses,” Howard wrote.

The idea for amending the 500-foot rule previously came up in November 2012.

When asked, several downtown bar owners supported amending the ordinance for outlying establishments while keeping the law the same for downtown.

At the time, Councilor Terry Dickens told the DI he was in favor of amending the ordinance.

“The ordinance as it is hurts businesses outside of downtown,” he said in a Nov. 9, 2012, article. “There are only so many commercial areas. It’s a matter of fairness. Separate areas should have separate rules for zoning.”

City councilors will hold a public hearing on the item and vote on the first consideration of the ordinance at their next meeting, July 23.

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