Boulder’s University Hill faces ban on booze

City council considers stricter Hill liquor laws that have business owners up in arms

The entryway to No Entiendo
Photo by Steve Weishampel

Correction: The Rib House was not the restaurant referred to in this story that had applied for later hours on the Hill. Merry Ann Webb, co-founder of The Rib House, says, “The Rib House family is owned and operated and is very happy to have the hours that we have. I’m almost happier not having a bar.”

Not a whole lot of college students drink wine. Beer, yes, sometimes copious amounts. Hard liquor, of course, often in 1-ounce glasses.

But under new ordinances that Boulder City Council will consider this fall, potential bar and restaurant owners on University Hill had better hope student tastes change. If any of the bills are passed, hard liquor sales on the Hill will be restricted, and new liquor licenses will only allow bars and restaurants to serve beer and wine — if they’re allowed to serve at all.

Colorado has long had a state law banning liquor sales within 500 feet of a school, including universities. Boulder ordinance, meanwhile, has had an exemption for the University of Colorado Boulder ever since the city allowed alcohol sales in the mid-1960s.

Thus, Boulder traditions like The Sink and more recent additions like The Goose, No Entiendo (formerly K’s China) and The Rib House can serve beer, wine and liquor within 500 feet, by walking distance, of the CU campus.

But the 500-foot rule may soon change. City council member Ken Wilson, in his final year before his term limit is reached, says city council revisiting the exemption to the 500-foot rule is “long overdue.” He says the atmosphere in the business district on the Hill has improved since “12 or 15 years ago,” when establishments like the Players Club used to draw large crowds, but he says changes to liquor licenses could help calm down the business area.

“I would say now, the business district is a lot calmer and less of a problem than it was back then,” he says. “And I’d like to see it stay that way. I’d like to see a better variety of businesses, of both restaurants and retail, and if the whole place turns into a bar scene, that doesn’t accomplish that.”

So before the council session ends in November, city council will consider a set of possible ordinances that could restrict new licenses in the Hill business area. The city could implement the 500-foot rule, banning new liquor licenses within 500 feet of CU, or it could only allow Beer & Wine licenses, a new license designation, in the 500- foot area. Another option is to change the zoning and land use codes to ban certain types of liquor licenses in the Hill business area — for the so-called “high impact” businesses that stay open after 11 p.m. or that serve primarily alcohol rather than food. None of these changes would affect existing businesses, which would be grandfathered in and would be allowed to transfer their liquor licenses to new businesses, says Mishawn Cook, staff liaison for the Beverage Licensing Authority (BLA).

But the city’s own research doesn’t agree that change is necessary.

In all, city council has studied the Hill in three ways: a working group that included various stakeholders; the ongoing University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission, commonly called UHCAM; and a 2012 public survey. None of those three have recommended changing the 500-foot rule or changing zoning on the Hill.

UHCAM, which consists of five commissioners appointed by city council, voted 4-0 in its July 17 meeting to tell city council it does not support changes to the 500-foot rule, with Commissioner Jyotsna Raj abstaining; the vote was 5-0 for a statement that the ordinances “do not appear to address the problem” and calling for further study of how new ordinances would affect new and potential businesses.

At the July 17 meeting, commission chair Hillary Griffith suggested the city council wasn’t listening to the commission.

“It would be nice to get city council here, or at least some members,” she said.

“They say we are a priority, but they don’t act like it,” added Raj.

Lexi Winer, who serves on UHCAM and was formerly the director of city and neighborhood relations for the CU student government, put forward the motion opposing the 500-foot rule. Winer also served on the working group formed by city council, and she says the ordinances that city council is now considering don’t reflect the recommendations of that group.

“It wasn’t the majority opinion, I can say that,” she says. “Specifically relating to changes in the 500-foot rule, that was not the consensus.”

Michael Absalom, an assistant general manager at South Boulder’s Southern Sun and the president of Boulder’s Responsible Hospitality Group (RHG), says the language in the potential new ordinances came out of nowhere. His predecessor at the RHG served on the working group.

“We brought it to city council in February — the directives from the community working group and our industry — and they came back with completely different things,” he says.

Current CU student government president Chris Schaefbauer and Bill Shrum, a former chair of UHCAM and an entrepreneur working on establishing a new co-working space called SparkBoulder on the Hill, both agree.

“Things being brought forward [to city council] didn’t have consensus” from the working group, Schaefbauer said at the July 17 UHCAM meeting.

At that meeting, Hill business owners emphasized the damage that new regulations could do, even to existing businesses that wouldn’t be directly affected.

“Changing the 500-foot rule would cause irreversible economic damage to the Hill,” said Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink, at the UHCAM meeting. It would “put a stamp” on the Hill that it’s for college students only.

It would send the erroneous message to Boulder at large that the Hill is “dangerous,” Heinritz said. He said the message from city council would be, “Look what we had to do.” It would also create “more friction” for potential restaurant owners and give them reason to open their restaurant elsewhere, where they wouldn’t face earlier closing times and would be able to sell liquor and mixed drinks.

Half Fast Subs on a Saturday night

“City council should be embracing what kind of opportunities they can create in terms of [the Hill] being an underperforming asset,” Heinritz says in a separate interview. “There would be a return in sales tax revenue on any investment.”

If The Sink were to operate under the restrictions, Heinritz said, it would represent “10 to 12 people becoming unemployed” and a drop in revenues of 20 percent. Also at the meeting, Absalom said enforcing the 500-foot rule would “just crush the revitalization of the Hill.”

Multiple Hill business owners expressed frustration at the city’s current restrictions on Hill bars and restaurants. Many are not allowed to stay open after 11 p.m. No Entiendo, taking over the liquor license of K’s China, operates under a long list of restrictions including checking two forms of ID for any patrons who enter the bar and reporting monthly food sales to the BLA. BLA member Lisa Spalding, who several bar owners say is the strictest member when it comes to Hill bars and restaurants, declined a request for an interview because the BLA “has a Hill bar coming before it next month.”

In interviews, Wilson and council member Suzy Ageton held up Café Aion at 1235 Pennsylvania St. as a possible model for future businesses. But Aion would not open under the conditions the ordinance would establish, Chef/Owner Dakota Soifer says. Told about the potential changes to the 500-foot rule, Soifer says he would not choose the Hill.

“I think that that would have deterred me from opening a business up here,” he says.

“I’d be very worried and concerned that that would just be further alienating and deterring anyone from coming up to the Hill and starting a business,” Soifer says. “Nor do I think that really would address and fix any issue.”

Also a Hill resident, Soifer says he’d like to see the Hill appeal to Boulder at large, but he doesn’t think the proposed laws would accomplish that.

“This is our ’hood,” he says. “I go to all these places and I think they’re all great. It’s just, I don’t think the city or the community at large is doing anything to attract any new business.”

The city’s new potential laws also weren’t informed by the survey of interested parties that the city conducted online in late 2012. With more than 2,000 responses — “the most successful Web survey that the City of Boulder has ever conducted,” the city’s website says — the overwhelming verdict from respondents was: Do nothing. Seventy-five percent of respondents said alcohol overconsumption is not a problem. And asked where overconsumption was a problem, 54.6 percent of respondents said private house parties; 6 percent cited “specific businesses” and 5.6 percent the “University campus.”

But since the survey was released, city council members have repeatedly criticized it, saying the results were tainted.

“You must not have heard what actually happened there,” Wilson says. “The bar owners were making copies of that and giving it to every one of their bar patrons. It was a totally bogus thing by the end of it. It was, ‘What do people drinking in the bars think should happen?’ That’s why council paid no attention to that and we pretty much told staff, ‘Don’t do this again.’ It was not at all a scientific survey. It was co-opted by the bar owners for their own purposes. And people had seen them doing this, and they pretty much admitted it. It was silly.

“It was totally worthless,” he adds.

Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum says the same: “That was the survey that folks at various bars were getting their patrons to respond to,” he says, which invalidates the results.

“Once it gets to be statistically not valid, it’s not reflective of anything,” he says. “You just can’t claim anything about it.”

Bar and restaurant owners around the Hill say otherwise. Only one establishment, No Entiendo, said it encouraged patrons — or, to be specific, Facebook friends and fans — to take the survey, according to No Entiendo bartender Brian Noonan. Bruce Rush and Steven Schein, co-owners of Half Fast Subs, say they didn’t tell patrons to take the survey; Goose owner Dallas Pflug says he “didn’t say anything to anybody.”

“I have better things to do” than encourage customers to take a survey, Pflug says.

But Rush, Schein and other business owners all say that bars asking patrons to take the survey shouldn’t “invalidate” the results, as Appelbaum says it does, since the survey was available to the public and anyone could have encouraged others to take it.

“Respondents were in a certain age group where [they] said, ‘These people are young. Their opinions don’t matter,’” Absalom says. “Even when they took out that age group, it was only a 6 percent drop.”

Schein says the city council only decided to discard the survey after seeing what it said.

“If it came back, ‘Yes, we think it’s a serious problem,’ do you doubt for a second that the city council would not have held that up to be supportive of their hypothesis? … Not getting the answer that they so desperately wanted, they trashed their own survey.”

So where is the city’s ordinance idea coming from, if not the working group, the standing commission or the survey?

Wilson says the idea of stricter regulations for Hill businesses has been in the works for years, at least since city council responded to the prevalence of house parties in the residential area of the Hill with new ordinances 15 years ago.

But current CU students suggest house parties still contribute significantly to alcohol consumption on the Hill, more than drinking in the business area or on Pearl Street. Sharing a porch at 14th Street and College Avenue on Sunday afternoon with a friendly dog and a crushed PBR tallboy, Zach Bushey and Kevin Flinn say Hill houses are still the number one place to drink.

“Hill residences by far” are the site of the most drinking, Flinn says. “Just for convenience.”

“The business area isn’t so much the problem,” Flinn says. He cites Half Fast Subs as “really good about policing themselves” and avoiding serving underage drinkers. And he and Bushey agree the easiest way for people under 21 to drink is at house parties.

But Wilson sounds certain that city council will pass one or more of the measures.

“I think council wants to do something,” he says. “It will be an interesting discussion to see what. But I would be very surprised if we do nothing.”

He says he hopes Hill business owners will attend city council’s meetings and help guide the changes, rather than simply oppose them.

“My advice to the business owners would be, don’t say no to changes. Work with the council to make the right changes. …. Because we’re not gonna do nothing.”

Appelbaum says the potential ordinances are scheduled to receive a first reading at the Sept. 17 city council meeting and a second reading Oct. 1. Appelbaum predicts that public comment on the proposed ordinances will take place in October and “could easily change by a couple weeks.”

Wilson says it’s city council’s job to balance the concerns of business owners and residents who want opposite things.

“Not everybody’s gonna be happy,” Wilson says. “Probably no one’s gonna be exactly happy.

“That’s the thing in Boulder, even if you’re giving away ice cream on the street, people will show up and complain.”


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