By Howard Shook
In the aftermath of Atlanta City Council’s recent defeat of legislation that would have greatly extended Atlanta’s alcohol pouring times, The Buckhead Reporter asked me to provide a few words of background and context.
For locals, this topic always has and always will revolve around the Buckhead Village area and its concentration of liquor licenses, which straddles our most important roadway and is surrounded by a sensitive inner lining of condos and apartments which is itself surrounded by mature single-family neighborhoods.
Over the last 40 years, the Village has invented and reinvented itself several times, largely in response to changes in parking and alcohol policies.
In the 1980s, commercial properties in the then-flagging retail area had their minimum parking requirements reduced but, instead of luring business in general it created a perfect environment for clubs and bars. As alcohol-fueled rents increased, more and more non-alcohol retailers abandoned the area, and on weekends, it took on a Bourbon Street flavor.
Near the decade’s end, huge crowds of partygoers who rarely entered the bars and clubs milled around in the clogged streets all night, creating their own energy. Crime of all types escalated. Streets were impassable. Garbage piled up. The neighbors were boiling.
In the summer of 2000, Councilman Lee Morris (who held the seat I currently occupy), introduced legislation curtailing pouring hours. Mayor Bill Campbell – who many felt enjoyed having Buckhead in his dog house – helped cast the matter as a white-on-black conflict (many of the club patrons and street partiers were African-American). After more than five hours of polarizing debate, City Council voted 7-6 along racial lines to kill an earlier closing time.
By the early years of the new millenium, the problems had worsened: between 2000 and 2003, party-related traffic routinely shut down Peachtree and parts of Piedmont Roads.
The noise was unbearable for neighbors. Five pedestrians were run over; and nine men died by knife or gun – all of the latter being killed after 3:40 a.m. (Fortunately, several shoot-outs yielded no victims.)
The tipping point occurred on New Year’s Eve 2003, when NFL All-Pro Ray Lewis and two associates were charged with the stabbing deaths of two men. (Lewis later pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge).
The political, residential, and business communities came together, and change happened rapidly. I was able to pass legislation curtailing pouring hours and restoring parking requirements. Then-Mayor Shirley Franklin directed a crackdown on building and alcohol code violations.
As the alcohol-elevated rent structure began collapsing, developers started buying out clubs and converting the properties to other uses. When Ben Carter inaugurated his massive ‘Streets of Buckhead’ project, instead of a ground-breaking, a crowd cheered as dignitaries took turns slamming a backhoe into a bar.
But a return to an early-morning “last call” will always have its supporters, and this summer Councilman Kwanza Hall tested the waters. His proposal’s quick death should come as no surprise to the well-informed.
Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner, aware of local and national data on the obvious relationship between pouring hours and crime (when Atlanta’s hours were rolled back, crime predictably plummeted), indicated their opposition. The “International City” argument was a non-starter, given the long list of verifiably ‘international’ destinations with 2 a.m. closing times, including, but not limited to, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Revenue-related claims were also summarily dismissed, as in the year following the 2003 rollback, liquor license applications actually increased, with no measurable loss of city revenue. And, surveys of stakeholders in the all-important convention trade have never cited a 2 a.m. closing time as a turn-off (like crime, clogged and dirty streets, and panhandling, to name three Village conditions that generated national headlines).
To those of you who agree that a ‘live, work, play’ community should include sleep, cheers!
Howard Shook is a member of Atlanta City Coucnil. He represents District 7, which takes in a portion of Buckhead.