Ideas on how to manage nightlife in downtown Lafayette include limiting so-called “megabars,” requiring proposed bars to lay out detailed business plans and making nightclubs follow new guidelines on noise, litter, security or any number of yet-to-determined factors.
Those ideas, among many others, were discussed at a Friday public hearing on doing away with the 13-year-old ban on new bars in downtown Lafayette.
It was one of four public hearings on the issue this week. A fifth is planned 6 p.m. Thursday at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center downtown.
The City-Parish Council voted earlier this year to consider allowing new bars downtown, as long as they meet certain requirements and receive the blessing of the council and the city-parish Planning and Zoning Commission.
There is no timeline on when staff with Planning, Zoning and Development will draft a proposal, and PZD Director Carlee Alm-LaBar said more public input might be sought.
The City-Parish Council imposed the ban in 2003, and only downtown properties with bar permits when the ban passed can continue to be used as bars.
At the time, officials were concerned bars might overtake Jefferson Street, creating security problems and driving away other types of business.
But the restriction has been criticized in recent years for serving as a barrier to a more vibrant entertainment district.
Critics also point out the ban, while successfully limiting the number of bars, can protect poorly run businesses that would otherwise fail in a more competitive environment coupled with better regulations.
“We are not necessarily looking for more bars. We are looking for better operating bars,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris said.
The starting point for exploring any changes in the ban is what’s called a “conditional use” under city-parish government’s existing zoning laws.
Zoning generally lays out what can or cannot be located in a particular area of town — no pipe yards here, no car lots there.
A conditional use allows certain businesses in a designated area as long as those businesses meet a set of conditions and secure approval of the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City-Parish Council.
Bars are already allowed as a conditional use in some areas of Lafayette under guidelines that, in general, stipulate the bar must fit the character of the neighborhood, doesn’t harm the value of surrounding property and doesn’t create a nuisance.
“The conditional use is as close as zoning gets to a gray area,”Alm-LaBar said.
No decision has been made on any specific conditions, but suggestions on Friday included carving out a special allowance for “music and heritage centers,” which would include certain live music venues, and requiring prospective bars owners to submit detailed business plans and offer assurances of financing, an effort to weed out poorly conceived proposals.
“We need to know exactly what you want to do,” said Robert Guercio, who has been involved in several downtown Lafayette businesses for years, including the new Wurst Biergarten now taking shape on Jefferson Street.
The Police Department has one specific request: capping bar occupancy at 250 people or less.
Police Capt. Bert Bejsovec said a big downtown security headache is dealing with huge crowds spilling out into the street when bars close at 2 a.m.
“We simply don’t have the manpower to police it effectively,” he said.
There has long been talk of revisiting the downtown bar ban, but the idea gained traction last year when the popular downtown music venue Artmosphere Bistro faced possible closure.
Artmosphere, which is not eligible for a bar permit because of the 2003 ban, sells alcohol under a restaurant liquor permit but has struggled to meet the requirement of keeping food sales above 50 percent of its revenue.
The Planning and Zoning Commission and the City-Parish Council would have to approve any change in the 2003 bar ban.