The City-Parish Zoning Commission on Monday called for public forums before making any decision on whether to do away with the 13-year-old ban on new bars in downtown Lafayette.
The City-Parish Council last month asked the commission to research allowing bars as a conditional use under downtown’s zoning code, opening the door for new bars as long as they meet certain requirements.
Commissioners briefly discussed the issue Monday, and it quickly became clear they don’t want to act without extensive public input on the delicate balance between residents and property owners who have concerns about public safety issues and the desire for a more diverse and vibrant nightlife downtown.
“This has been quite a contentious issue. … It’s a much bigger issue than one might think,” said Commissioner Mark Gremillion.
He and other commissioners asked city-parish staff to begin arranging public forums on the issue, reaching out to anyone who might be affected, including bar owners, property owners, residents in and around downtown, the police officers who respond to complaints there and the city-parish departments tasked with cleaning up behind bar crowds after a busy weekend.
“We need to know about the impact,” said Commissioner Lynne Guy.
Commissioner John Guilbeau said he is open to change, but he clearly has concerns about straining public safety resources or turning downtown “into a Bourbon Street.”
“Who is going to clean up this mess?” he asked.
The council instituted the bar ban in 2003, prompted by concerns about a spate of new bars moving in along Jefferson Street at the time.
Downtown properties with bar permits when the ban passed can continue to operate as bars, even if ownership of the property or the bar changes.
The ban has been criticized as a barrier to a more vibrant entertainment district and for establishing a de facto bar monopoly for certain locations.
City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque, who with fellow Councilman Pat Lewis, pushed to revisit the bar ban, has said he envisions possibly carving out an exception for a what he called a “hybrid” entertainment venue that would offer a minimum amount of live music.
The concept is welcomed by Lafayette lawyer Thomas Guilbeau, who owns a building along Jefferson Street downtown.
He said he doesn’t necessarily want any new bars but would like to open “zydeco bistro” in his building, offering live local music.
“The biggest thing we have going for us right now is that we have a culture rich in music and we should develop that,” he said. “We should be opening new businesses and collecting sales tax.”
Talk of revisiting the ban began 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 keep food sales above 50 percent to meet the permit requirements.
“One of the things I hear sometimes is fear of change, but clearly we are here today because something isn’t working as well as it could,” said Artmosphere owner Beryl Kemp, who attended Monday’s Zoning Commission meeting. “I think that things that happened in 2003 are not the same things that need to happen in 2016.”
The Downtown Development Authority has yet to take a formal stance on the issue, but the group’s CEO, Nathan Norris, has said the regulations for bars downtown need to be revisited to give officials more flexibility in addressing complaints about crowd size, noise and criminal behavior.