Lawrence business proposes city reconsider current restrictions on downtown bars

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The entrance of John Brown's Underground, 7 E. Seventh St., is pictured on Aug. 4, 2022.

A business that has struggled to adhere to the City of Lawrence’s limits on downtown alcohol sales is proposing the city make changes to its code to essentially allow additional bars downtown under certain conditions.

A city ordinance that dates back to 1994 requires new downtown drinking establishment licensees to make no more than 45% of their sales from alcohol. The businesses with bar use that already existed in 1994 became “grandfathered,” and 23 businesses are allowed to maintain a bar use even if ownership changes hands. The goal of the ordinance was to help preserve the retail character of downtown and prevent it from becoming a bar district.

Initially the allowance for an “accessory bar” applied only to restaurants and hotels, requiring the 55% non-alcohol sales to come from food, but last year the City Commission expanded the option to retail and other uses. That means businesses can now use food, retail, services or any other non-alcohol sales to meet the 55% non-alcohol threshold.

John Brown’s Underground, a speakeasy-style bar at 7 E. Seventh St. that opened in 2014, has failed to adhere to the alcohol sales requirement on a few occasions over the years. Late last month, after another such occasion, John Brown’s succeeded in getting the commission to approve a six-month extension of its drinking establishment license so it could pursue the code change. Mayor Courtney Shipley was the only commissioner to vote against the extension, noting that John Brown’s had failed to comply with the city ordinance in the past, and that as long as the requirement was in place it should be followed.

Scott Elliott and Dante Colombo, the owner and manager of John Brown’s, are requesting that the city increase the allowed percentage of alcohol sales from 45% to 55%, and allow the city to grant businesses an exception to derive as much as 90% of sales from alcohol under certain conditions, according to an application for a proposed text amendment.

Specifically, if a business exceeds 55% of sales from alcohol, the proposed amendment would give the city the “discretion” to issue a non-transferable special use permit that would allow up to 90% of sales to come from alcohol. The restaurant/accessory bar would have to meet the following conditions:

• Have been in operation for more than five years

• Have a valid liquor license issued by the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division

• Have no history of neighborhood complaints, have no violations of any state or municipal liquor laws for one year prior to the application, and not be deemed a nuisance

• Have a floor area of less than 3,000 square feet

• File an application for the exception prior to the expiration of the city liquor license

Regarding why John Brown’s was not able to meet the city alcohol sales requirement, the applicants state in part that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the requirement more challenging, noting the closure in April 2020 of Wake the Dead restaurant, which was on the floor above John Brown’s. The applicants state that they have attempted other ways to make more non-alcohol sales, such as selling merchandise and offering cocktail-making classes, but that they were still unsuccessful.

As far as justification for the proposed amendment, the applicants state in part that John Brown’s complements other downtown businesses and contributes to the uniqueness of downtown, and the amendment would allow other “small, law-abiding” businesses to do the same. They also state the amendment’s limitations would protect against nuisance and safety issues and be fairer than the existing ordinance, which they argue favors the grandfathered bars.

“The proposed amendment also seeks to level the playing field for Downtown businesses not afforded the grandfathered status exclusively available to the fortunate real estate owners and businesses at the time the Ordinance was enacted,” the applicants state. “… The inherent inequity is readily apparent when contrasted against Applicant’s business, which struggles to meet the Ordinance requirements due to its space constraints and thoughtfully considered offerings.”

The proposal to amend city code was recently submitted to the city, and is in the first step of a multi-step process that would be required to make such a change.

Planning and Development Director Jeff Crick said since a private party requested the proposed text amendment, city code requires that the City Commission first review and consider initiating the requested amendment. If the commission agrees to initiate the amendment, it would then go to the Planning Commission for its review and recommendation. That recommendation would then return to the City Commission for ultimate consideration.

Crick said the city is currently working to schedule the potential initiation of the amendment on an upcoming City Commission agenda.

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