City may allow zoning change Downtown

by Walter Pierce

The change is designed to allow Artmosphere to continue current operations.

The City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that, if approved, would direct the Zoning Commission to review bars as a conditional use Downtown. The possible change would allow Artmosphere, the popular live-music bistro, to continue its current operations and no longer be subject to rules governing bars and restaurants in the district.

According to District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque, co-author with District 3 Councilman Pat Lewis, the conditional use zoning classification would be granted on a case-by-case basis and would not open Downtown Lafayette up to a proliferation of bars.

“This resolution is not intended to rescind the prohibition of bars and lounges in Downtown Lafayette, but rather to encourage the creation of a new “hybrid” entertainment venue within the downtown hospitality district; one which is neither a restaurant nor a bar or lounge,” Conque says in an email to The IND.

Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp
Photo by Robin May

In 2003 the council passed an ordinance that capped the number of liquor licenses issued to bars in an effort to retard the proliferation of bars Downtown and the rowdy nighttime crowds associated with it. This was right about the time that Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp opened her venue, and due in part to her proximity to a church and school as well as the moratorium, elected to open Artmosphere as a restaurant rather than a bar. That decision meant that Artmosphere would be required to earn more than 50 percent of its revenue on food as opposed to alcohol. No problem at first, but as Kemp invested in a sound system and stage to accommodate live music, the venue’s alcohol sales skyrocketed at the expense of food sales.

For most of 2015 Artmosphere teetered and reeled. The state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control had put the venue on notice at the end of 2014 following an audit of its sales, telling Kemp that if she didn’t get her food sales up to 50+ percent she would lose her liquor license, which would effectively shutter the bistro because this is South Louisiana and one does not listen to live music without drinking alcohol.

Then-ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert held a hearing in February of last year, giving Kemp a reprieve. By August, Kemp appealed to the Zoning Commission to allow her to basically secede from the Downtown area, which would exempt her from the moratorium on bar licenses. The next month Conque, then a member of the commission, pushed to defer.

“The Zoning Commission deferment included a request to ATC to extend an audit of the business to allow time to research options. That request was granted for a six-month extension with the ATC audit to be performed on April 30, 2016,” Conque says.

So where do things stand? If the council resolution is approved, the Zoning Commission will be tasked with developing a conditional use classification — one that, for example, would require a venue to have live music on most nights it’s open — that could then be applied to Artmosphere, allowing the popular night spot to remain open and to no longer be subject to the 50+ percent food sales rule.

It’s all about helping keep good neighbors — venues like Artmosphere that promote local culture through live music — in the Downtown district without opening the door for the expansion of bars where getting drunk and rowdy are the main goal.

Adds Conque: “The resolution is a suggestion that the Zoning Commission consider a conditional use permit that could and should include specific criteria that would manage the expansion of entertainment options in Downtown Lafayette.”