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Barring Bars May Kick Other Businesses to Curb

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A new zoning ordinance intended to curb the concentration of bars in residential neighborhoods has city planning commissioners wondering if it may be overkill -- even for its intended target, South Side's East Carson Street.

The ordinance will restrict not only bars, but also any restaurant serving alcohol, from being established within 150 feet of each other -- about the length of half a city block. It would effectively halt any new (or replacement) businesses serving liquor from opening on East Carson.

The rule's author, city Councilor Jeff Koch, told the commission at its Dec. 19 meeting that the main problem is mega-bars holding up to 600 patrons.

"It may have an unintended effect more so on small businesses than on a chain restaurant," cautioned commission Chairwoman Wrenna Watson. Because the rule was written broadly to pass any legal challenge, it may have the unintended effect of keeping more desirable restaurants from the street in the future.

The new rule stems from South Side residents who say they can no longer live with the crowds and noise created by the concentration of bars there. All told, 140 liquor licenses are currently held by businesses on East Carson Street between South 10th to South 22nd streets, according to the city's zoning administrator, Jeremy Smith.

"We're not against bars," says Mary Ellen Leigh, board member of the South Side Community Council, a neighborhood group pushing the rule. It's just that bars "are multiplying like rabbits. We're hoping [the new law] would stem the tide ... "

The Pittsburgh planning commission will hold a special public hearing on the ordinance Jan. 23. But as is the city's practice, the zoning ordinance went into effect immediately after Koch introduced it in early November, and the measure will stand unless city council votes against it -- a move that, if it comes, will likely be based on advice from the planning commission.

Commission Vice Chair Kyra Straussman says she is "concerned about the effect of such an untested legislation" on smaller establishments and restaurants.

Jim Schwab, senior co-editor of Zoning Practice, a journal of the American Planning Association, notes that similar zoning ordinances have been used by many cities.

As a suburb of a larger city than Pittsburgh, North Las Vegas, Nev. (population 115,000), has had luck with a similar ordinance. Here, taverns cannot be closer than 2,500 feet from each other and must be at least 500 feet from a home, based on a zoning law enacted in December 2005.

"It's cutting down the number of taverns," reports that city's planning manager, Marc Jordan. "It's worked; it's harder and harder to find locations to meet those requirements."

But unlike Pittsburgh's proposed ordinance, the Nevada town's law covers only bars, not all establishments serving liquor. Pittsburgh's ordinance was made broader to be more easily defensible in court, says the planning commission's Smith.

But even Chicagoan Jim Schwab knows to ask the right question about the ordinance's potential effect in this town: "If you have a number of small restaurants on a block that seat 20 to 30 ... does that pose the same problem as a bar that seats 500 so that they can watch the Steelers?"

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