Should Savannah expand the to-go cup zone?

This is another post in response to the release late last week (on the Friday before Labor Day) of the proposed revisions — major revisions — to the city of Savannah’s alcohol ordinance.

I’ve already written a couple of posts here at Savannah Unplugged: The City of Savannah wishes that 18, 19, and 20 year-olds would disappear and Should Savannah bars be forced to hire additional and costly latenight security? In my City Talk columns, I’ve already written a very short overview of the problems with the city’s chosen process and the timing of the release and of the first public meetings.

In Sunday’s City Talk (available at SavannahNow or in print on 9/7), I raise broader questions about the rights of legal adults aged 18 to 20.

In my first post here last week, I briefly mentioned the city’s proposal to extend the current line for legal outdoor drinking from to-go cups from Jones Street southward along the Bull Street corridor so that the line covers more of the Historic District, including all of Forsyth Park.

From the draft ordinance:

Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 9.06.24 AM

Click here to see the proposed map for to-go cups.

OK, after that background, let me say that I am entirely in favor of extending the to-go cup zone, but I do not support this proposal as drafted.

First, the statements from city officials so far have suggested a desire for consistency and enforceability. They state that folks are already drinking out of plastic cups routinely in Forsyth Park. That’s certainly true to a degree. Special events sometimes have permits for alcohol service within the park, and many other special event without permits attract citizens who bring bottles of wine, coolers with beer, etc.

But I wander through Forsyth Park a lot. I see groups of people off the main path all the time, but I have no idea how many of them are consuming alcohol. My impression is not many. And I don’t recall ever noticing anyone sitting along the benches drinking alcohol.

It seems that at least a few neighbors around Forsyth Park are objecting to the extension on the presumption that there will be loud partying, but I don’t think that’s a concern at all. The concern would be that the folks who hang out in the park throughout the day and deep into the night will start drinking — and sometimes becoming drunk — with much greater frequency along the central walkway, as all manner of local children, families, and tourists wander by.

Now, I think we need a really high bar to ban legal behaviors in public places, and I would not agree that the likely problems — and there will be some if folks are allowed to drink openly all day — are sufficient reason not to extend the to-go cup zone. This is a public debate worth having, however.

As I noted in a previous post, if we are going to extend the to-go cup boundaries to include Forsyth Park, we should go ahead and make it possible for nearby businesses to benefit from the change. With the line drawn at the edges of Forsyth Park, there will actually be an extra burden placed on businesses that sell alcohol by the drink. The bartenders and security personnel at the American Legion Post #135 already spend a considerable amount of time telling patrons that they cannot leave the premises with drinks. Right now, that law is pretty straightforward since the to-go cup line doesn’t begin until Jones Street.

But imagine what’s going to happen when purchasers of alcohol at The Sentient Bean, the American Legion, The Mansion, and Local 11 Ten — all within a stone’s throw of Forsyth — try to take their drinks across the street. They will be stopped by employees, but then there will be a very tricky argument. Imagine the conversations:

“You can’t leave with that. The legal line for to-go cups ends at the south edge of Forsyth Park.”

“But Forsyth Park is right there! I can walk there in less than a minute — 15 seconds even! I won’t start drinking till I get there.”

Wasted time, wasted energy, bad customer relations.

Extending the line to include Forsyth Park is a good idea in general, I think, but that line should then logically include longstanding businesses that are are within the next block around the park.

Of course, by that logic, why not keep extending it?

We have some problems with vagrancy and the like out here where I live near 32nd and Bull streets, but that’s insufficient reason to ban a legal activity in a public place, especially a corridor that is dotted with businesses that serve alcohol. As you can read below in another link, outdoor drinking is seen by many of us as a tool for downtown revitalization.

I’d like to see the to-go cup line extended all the way down the Bull Street corridor to at least Victory Drive, but I doubt that Savannah is ready to make such an aggressive move.

But, again, this is a debate worth having.

If you’re interested in some broader arguments with historical information and examples from other cities, check out Downtown revitalization secret: Let us drink in public! in Salon. From that piece:

For American cities seeking to enliven their downtowns, though, drink is increasingly seen as a crucial ally. No one can say how important the open container exemption is to Beale Street’s success, but the feature has been widely imitated. Louisville’s 4th Street Live!, a downtown revitalization effort with a more corporate feel, was exempted from Kentucky’s open container law in 2003 and opened in 2004. The eight blocks of Kansas City’s Power & Light District (like Fourth Street, developed by the Baltimore-based Cordish company) operate under a similar law. The Fort Worth Stockyards allow open containers, as does part of downtown Mobile, Ala.

And check out the Huffington Post’s The Secret History Of The War On Public Drinking:

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are arrested or ticketed for drinking in public every year. Millions of others refrain from doing so because they have been conditioned to believe that public drinking is an act as obviously illegal as shoplifting or nude sunbathing in a city park — even though it was perfectly legal nearly everywhere in the world as recently as 1975.

So let’s engage the debate about a much broader extension of the to-go cup ban, and let’s hear from those who want the current boundaries to stay where they are — or even be further contracted.

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