Town Talk | City considering new downtown district where people could stroll the sidewalks with alcohol in hand (2024)

Town Talk | City considering new downtown district where people could stroll the sidewalks with alcohol in hand (1)

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

Downtown Lawrence, looking north, is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

Soon, any night could be — legally — your own Martini Mosey on the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence.

What’s more, with drink in hand, you could take that Stoli Stroll (we’re not going to run out of liquor or alliteration) into retail shops and other such businesses that don’t serve alcohol.

City Hall leaders have begun reaching out to downtown merchants and other businesses about an idea that would allow people to openly consume liquor and alcohol while walking up and down the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street, and perhaps other downtown streets.

The public consumption wouldn’t just be limited to special events. Instead, it would be a day-in, day-out feature of downtown Lawrence.

Downtown Lawrence Inc. Director Andrew Holt said that City Hall officials have begun discussions with downtown stakeholders about the idea. Whether the idea ever becomes reality is uncertain.

“It is all across the spectrum,” Holt said of viewpoints from downtown businesses. “There are some people who think it is the answer, and other people who think it is not a good idea.”

For years, the idea wasn’t even much of a legal possibility. But the Kansas Legislature has changed state liquor law in recent years to allow for Common Consumption Areas. In essence, lawmakers have given cities and counties the authority to designate large areas where beer and liquor can be legally consumed on a regular basis.

Historically, drinking on a public sidewalk, for example, has been a no-no. While cities have had the ability to allow for some special events that include drinking on the public right-of-way, those have generally been one-day affairs that happen infrequently. State law generally has required drinking to be done as part of an establishment that holds a liquor license from the state. Thus, drinking in a restaurant is fine, drinking in the restaurants’ sidewalk dining area is fine, but taking that drink outside the dining area and walking around with it throughout downtown is illegal.

State law now would allow such thirsty patrons to take drinks with them. But the idea doesn’t stop with sidewalks.

The law could allow people with alcohol in hand to enter businesses that don’t serve alcohol. For example, someone could buy a beer in a participating bar, walk a block with beer in hand, and then enter a retail store to do some sipping and shopping.

Importantly, though, it would be up to each business to decide whether to allow people to enter their premises while possessing liquor. The same holds true for bars and restaurants the currently have drinking establishment licenses. It is up to them to decide whether they would let someone enter their establishments carrying liquor that they bought elsewhere.

The big change, though, is those drinking establishments could choose to let patrons leave their businesses with liquor in hand, which has long been prohibited by state regulators.

First, though, the Lawrence City Commission is going to have to decide whether any of this is a good idea. A change in state law has made such Common Consumption Areas possible, but only if a city or county commission approves.

It is fair to say that Lawrence City Hall leaders are currently intrigued by the idea, and there is one particular reason why they are interested in it now — football.

KU won’t be hosting any of its home football games in Lawrence this season due to stadium renovations. That almost certainly will mean millions of lost dollars in liquor, food, retail and hotel sales during the course of the year. But if downtown becomes a new type of entertainment zone that allows liquor throughout the district, that might create some new visitors and economic activity. At least, that’s a thought.

The football situation is “certainly one of the motivations,” behind the idea, Porter Arneill, an assistant director of parks and recreation who has been tasked with gathering information for City Hall, told me.

If the idea is going to be in place for football season, look for the issue to go to the City Commission soon. Arneill said he hopes to make a presentation to the City Commission in mid July.

Topeka opened two public consumption areas — one in its downtown and another in its North Topeka arts district — in April. Hays has had a district since November, and Arneill has been talking to officials there. About 40 other cities — including Manhattan and as nearby as Ottawa — have created the special districts.

“One thing I’ve heard from him and a couple of others is there are fewer issues than anticipated,” Arneill said.

But whether that would be the case in Lawrence is an open question. Lawrence has the largest population of college students in the state. Arneill said the city will want to think through that dynamic. Cities can choose what hours of the day public consumption is allowed in the district. Arneill said there is some discussion that a Lawrence district may want to end public consumption at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., rather than allowing it to go until a bar’s traditional closing time of 2 a.m.. In that scenario, bars would still be open until 2 a.m. in downtown Lawrence, but patrons wouldn’t be able to take their drinks outside of bars after 10 p.m..

Arneill said some downtown stakeholders have been interested in that scenario.

“A lot of people here are saying the crowd we are interested in is that crowd that wants to wander around while they are waiting for a restaurant table or after dinner,” Arneill said. “I think the time that we would set will be really important.”

Other potential problems have come up as the city has heard from downtown stakeholders. One of them is trash, and in particular, plastic cups. The state law requires that bars and restaurants that allow liquor to be taken off their premises do so in a cup that has the bar or restaurant’s name or logo on it. Most likely, that is going to be a plastic cup, which is not a loved idea in a city that recently banned the use of most plastic bags.

“The city has a commitment to sustainability, so there is a very rational question of whether we really want to generate more plastic cups,” Arneill said. “We are looking into alternative possibilities for that.”

Of course, one other issue that would have to be determined is the exact boundaries of any Common Consumption Area. Arneill said the city is focusing on the downtown area, and within downtown, Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets seem the most likely areas, as well as some of the side streets that connect those two.

Whatever the boundaries would be, state law would require some new signs be installed in the downtown, identifying the area as a special alcohol zone. In Topeka, one sign is green with a hand grasping a cup for the areas where public consumption is allowed. Conversely, red signs holding an upside down cup are posted in areas where such consumption isn’t allowed.

Town Talk | City considering new downtown district where people could stroll the sidewalks with alcohol in hand (2)

photo by: City of Topeka

Examples of common consumption signs posted in Topeka are shown.

Another issue the City Commission will have to decide is who will be the operator of the Common Consumption Area? While any bar or restaurant with a liquor license could theoretically serve liquor into the area, there will need to be one entity that holds the actual Common Consumption Area permit issued by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division. The state law allows the city itself to hold the permit, which is the case in Topeka. However, an individual or an organization also could be the permit holder, if the city approves.

Additionally, the law — according to a fact sheet produced by the state — seems to open the door to drinking establishments in the district creating one satellite location within the district. I’m taking that to mean something like a hot dog stand, but for beer sales along the street. How much of that the city wants to see also would likely be a consideration.

Arneill said he doesn’t know how the City Commission ultimately will proceed with any of this, but he said it has been a good discussion thus far with downtown businesses.

“One thing that I have heard is people starting to think more creatively. . . It is nice to hear people considering that more innovative approach of ‘if we were to do this, how might it benefit us,'” Arneill said.

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Town Talk | City considering new downtown district where people could stroll the sidewalks with alcohol in hand (2024)


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