By Esther Fung
July 18, 2017
Property developers trying to create buzz for open-air shopping districts are lobbying regulators to relax rules to allow patrons to walk around streets and parks with alcoholic beverages.
As landlords hustle to get customers into their properties, they are looking to tap into demand for food-and-drink experiences. The hope: that lively atmospheres will encourage patrons to linger and shop.
Three years ago, Atlanta-based developer Vantage Realty Partners LLC proposed an open-container ordinance in Duluth, Ga., where it developed a retail and entertainment complex called Parsons Alley in a historic district downtown. The ordinance passed this year.
"Every restaurant and retailer loved it. It increases their sales. Their customers don't have to stay confined in their premises and can walk to the town green or fountain with a drink," said Chris Carter, co-founder of Vantage Realty.
Of the 45,000 square feet of space at Parsons Alley, roughly 70% is leased or sold and the firm is picking tenants for the remaining space.
The retail sector is slumping as internet shopping eats into revenue. Retail landlords are trying a variety of tactics to boost foot traffic at their properties, from adding restaurants and entertainment venues to creating open-air districts downtown.
City councils and zoning boards from Georgia to Alabama to Texas to Iowa in recent months have proved amenable to changing land-use and public-drinking ordinances to boost activity in once-bustling shopping districts.
"I don't know why alcohol is so important, but if you have a brew in hand and walk around, you'd enjoy it more, especially when there's good weather and live music," said Marc Moen, partner and owner of property developer Moen Group, a builder and operator of condominiums, retail, office and hotel buildings in the downtown area of Iowa City, which passed an open-container measure in May.
Last October, the board of commissioners of Forsyth County, Ga., permitted businesses in certain development districts to serve alcoholic beverages in to-go cups, with certain limits.
County officials understood the challenges in the retail environment, said Patrick Leonard, principal at RocaPoint Partners, which is building a $370 million, 135-acre mixed-use project in Forsyth County called Halcyon that would include plenty of lawn space.
"It seems to be a trend for retail property to help get people outside," said Mr. Leonard, adding that the looser open-container regulations "absolutely helped us lease retail space."
Iowa City's ordinance permits patrons to carry open containers on sidewalks and streets between licensed premises. That allowed the Iowa City Downtown District business association to apply for a temporary license for a downtown block party, which took place in June.
"It's an area that attracts all ages, little kids, grandparents, working adults and college students. Residents love being around activity and young people," said Mr. Moen, who supported the open-container ordinance.
In the downtown block party last month, cups were sold to partygoers who had to patronize bars and restaurants in the district to be served. The organizers also arranged for Uber pickup and drop-off points and parking garages nearby that offered free overnight parking.
"We wanted to make sure the event is safe and people are getting home," said Nancy Bird, executive director of Iowa City Downtown District, adding that there were no incidents. The party targeted 15,000 revelers, and 30,000 showed up.
Ohio in 2015 passed a bill allowing open-container zones, which opened the door for municipalities to do so. In the New York state Senate, lawmakers in February proposed a bill to allow patrons of a licensed business located within a leisure or recreation district to leave with alcohol in an open container if they stay within certain boundaries. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 61-1, and the state Assembly has yet to weigh in on the measure.
Pushing for change on public drinking often takes time. College towns, in particular, are resistant to measures that could lead to disorderly behavior.
Mr. Carter of Vantage Realty in Atlanta said that having people visit Avalon, another retail and mixed-use development 10 miles away where an open-container ordinance had already passed, helped his campaign in Duluth.
"They see how robust Avalon is. They had to touch it and experience it. And they realized it wasn't so scary," said Mr. Carter.