Downtowns search for balance between rousing, rowdy

Naperville, St. Charles debate regulations

During the day, a vibrant downtown is a blessing, an economic boon, a destination — something that puts a suburb on the map.

But at night, even the most pleasant of downtowns can take a turn toward the chaotic, as leaders in Naperville and St. Charles know all too well.

Bars can overserve patrons. Fights can break out, with combatants egged on by crowds that create a mob mentality. Intoxicated people can get kicked out of one tavern and stumble into another. Drunken drivers can get behind the wheel and lose control, leading to tragedy, as police say was the case with a recent crash in Naperville that killed two.

“We want and we have a vibrant downtown,” Naperville City Council member Joseph McElroy said. “But the challenge is to strike a balance between a vibrant downtown and a rowdy downtown.”

It's a challenge some communities have been addressing for years, and it's at the forefront again in Naperville, where McElroy and several council members are calling for tighter restrictions on downtown bars. Ideas council members may discuss when they meet Aug. 19 include:

• Enforcing earlier closing times.

• Forbidding the sale of shots after midnight.

• Requiring bars to install ID scanners at entrances.

• Implementing mandatory cover charges after 10 p.m. to discourage barhopping and prevent Naperville from becoming, as council member Robert Fieseler puts it, “the pub crawl capital of the Western suburbs.”

• Requiring food to be served until closing time.

• Meting out more punishment for bars that violate liquor license terms.

After a driver accused of being drunk plunged his car into a quarry near downtown Naperville killing two people, and a fight broke out in the middle of Washington Street — all during one recent weekend — some say now is the time to act.

“I do think it's time to rein in some of the overindulgence of drinking in downtown Naperville,” council member Grant Wehrli said.

Cutting out 'chaos'

If the push to rein in downtown drinking in Naperville sounds familiar, that's because similar conversations took place two years ago.

Shaun Wild, a Naperville teacher, was stabbed to death in a downtown bar in February 2012. That sparked discussions about how to maintain a safe night life in the city's commercial core.

Since then, police have increased patrols on weekends, added security cameras, worked with the fire department to enforce occupancy limits, even experimented with closing one-block sections of main thoroughfares Jefferson and Jackson avenues to increase pedestrian safety.

Mayor George Pradel, who also is Naperville's liquor commissioner, said downtown bar and restaurant owners came together after Wild's stabbing to develop a manual of safety responsibilities.

Council member Judith Brodhead said some measures the council could discuss already are in the manual, such as stopping the sale of shots one hour before closing and making last call 40 minutes before shutting down for the night.

“We've done a number of things to encourage restaurants to self-regulate, and that's the way they would prefer to go,” Brodhead said. “To a large extent, it's been successful. But if we are starting to see fights as a regular event on the weekends, clearly something more is needed.”

Meanwhile, St. Charles leaders have taken steps to calm their city's bar scene, spurred more by general complaints about noise and atmosphere than by any specific tragedy, Mayor Ray Rogina said. The city created a liquor commission and moved the standard closing time to midnight, requiring bars to buy permits to remain open one or two hours later.

Of 57 establishments with restaurant or tavern liquor licenses, eight received permits to stay open until 1 a.m. and 16 now have 2 a.m. permits.

St. Charles also is taking steps to incorporate a more precise definition of “intoxicated” into its city code. Using jury instructions designed by the Illinois Supreme Court, the city council could adopt a definition that says “a person is intoxicated when as a result of drinking alcoholic liquor there is an impairment of his or her mental or physical faculties so as to diminish the ability to think and act with ordinary care.”

The key to these measures, Rogina says, is forming relationships with operators of downtown taverns while fairly enforcing ordinances. One downtown establishment recently was cited and punished for allowing someone to leave with alcohol.

“We want them to be successful. We want them to do well. We want them to make our nightlife fun,” Rogina said. “But we will not tolerate chaos, and we're not going to tolerate childish behavior by individuals who come there for the purpose of getting drunk.”

'Call to action'

Early one Saturday morning three friends left the downtown Naperville bar scene and headed west. Two of them ended up dead on July 19, victims of a drowning when the car they were riding in plunged into a quarry.

The driver, 21-year-old Michael Szot of Geneva, has been charged with reckless homicide and aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol in the deaths of 21-year-olds Mihirtej Boddupalli of Lisle and Sajaad Safiullah Syed of Naperville. Authorities said Szot had a blood alcohol content of .142 after the crash. The legal threshold is .08.

The next day, a fight broke out on Washington Street. Not on the sidewalk adjacent to the downtown's main north/south drag but actually on the road.

Police arrested three people on battery charges and had to use a stun gun on one of them who they said “would not obey a lawful order to disengage from fighting.” Captured by onlookers and posted on social media, the fight further fueled conversations about the downside of a vibrant nightlife.

Since then, McElroy's suggestion of decreasing bar hours has been getting the most traction. He said closing time should be moved to 1 a.m. or midnight, but fellow council member Fieseler suggested a more “incremental” decrease of a half-hour.

“With these latest deaths, I think it's a call to action,” Fieseler said.

Some are questioning the fairness of decreasing hours when not all establishments are causing problems. Nancy Quigley, owner of Quigley's Irish Pub on Jefferson Avenue, said a mandated earlier closing could cause some employees to see smaller paychecks or lose their jobs, and she is not convinced it would prevent fights or tragedies.

Quigley is among those calling for stronger enforcement of current liquor regulations, but Pradel said he already is being “very fair and very firm” as liquor commissioner.

“I'm not sure that closing the bars earlier is the answer,” Pradel said.

Others are concerned broad restrictions are overreaching.

“We have some responsible owners,” council member Paul Hinterlong said. “I don't know if they should be punished just for the neglect of other bar and restaurant owners.”

While bar scene safety is likely to remain an important topic in Naperville and St. Charles, it's a desirable problem in a way, Rogina says.

“A good, healthy nightlife is very important for the economy, so that's the blessing,” Rogina said. “The curse is if the byproduct of that — the unruly behavior, the disruptions, etc. — gets out of hand.”

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  Naperville officials are considering restrictions to downtown night life that could result in shorter bar hours, no shots after midnight, cover charges after 10 p.m. or ID scanners at bar entrances. Paul Michna/
  Naperville officials say they want to strike a balance between a vibrant downtown and a rowdy atmosphere. Paul Michna/
  Bars in downtown St. Charles now have to apply for special permits to stay open past a base time of midnight after the city began taking efforts to calm the area's night life scene. Brian Hill/
  St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina says he wants his city to continue having a vibrant night life, but he and the liquor commission will not tolerate people who come simply to get drunk or bars that allow patrons to become a nuisance. Brian Hill/
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