Mayor Paul Soglin asked some City Council members Wednesday to halt a trend of disappearing retail space Downtown by restricting new liquor licenses.
Soglin sent out an invitation Tuesday to council members to discuss the retail environment Downtown, which in recent decades has seen more and more shops replaced by restaurants and bars.
About a dozen council members attended the meeting. Soglin asked them to consider a moratorium on new liquor licenses in the Downtown area while a city-funded study examining the use of commercial space in the area is conducted.
“You can’t have a viable city without a healthy Downtown,” Soglin said. “You can’t have a healthy Downtown without healthy retail, and that’s basically what’s driven city policies for 50 years.”
From 1989 until 2014, the percent of ground floor spaces used by bars and restaurants along State Street more than doubled, according to a Planning Division report. In 1989, 73 percent of those spaces held retail businesses, but that number dropped to 51 percent by 2014, the report said.
Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the area, said two consulting agencies will be interviewed early next month to decide which one should conduct the potentially yearlong study that will look at the use of retail, restaurant, bar and entertainment space and make recommendations for the future.
Soglin said during the meeting that the growth of entertainment businesses, such as bars and restaurants, is raising commercial rental rates, pricing out retail stores that can’t afford to stay.
“Retail is having a harder and harder time surviving on State Street and the Square because they cannot compete with the markets that come with what’s predominantly liquor sales,” Soglin said.
He asked council members to turn down a request by HopCat, which opened last year at 222 W. Gorham St., to expand its liquor license to allow a disc jockey to play on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Rick Petri, an attorney representing HopCat, said he opposes the mayor’s position on restricting licenses, and he said he sees the growth of bars and restaurants as a response to a young demographic that is moving into Downtown.
“Do they want a dry goods store? They order everything off the Internet,” Petri said. “They’re young. They’re sociable. They want a place to socialize, and along with socialization comes some alcohol.”
Owners of a Downtown Starbucks at 1 E. Main St. withdrew an application for a liquor license on Tuesday, saying in a letter to Soglin they understood and respect his position on limiting the expansion of bars and restaurants in the area.
In 2014, the city took steps to slow the loss of retail by rezoning some blocks of State Street and other Downtown streets to restrict new taverns from opening.
A moratorium on new liquor licenses in the area would require a vote from the full council, Soglin said.