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Atlanta Moves To Crack Down On Liquor Licenses As Pressure Mounts To Stem Gun Violence

As an ongoing wave of gun violence continues to crash over Atlanta, the city’s leaders are looking at more ways of cracking down on bars and nightclubs they say have exploited a lax liquor licensing system and created unsafe environments.

One effort by Atlanta City Councilman Byron Amos could require some restaurants to hire private security.

Bisnow has obtained a new ordinance proposed by Atlanta City Councilman Byron Amos and endorsed by several of his colleagues on the council that would require many establishments with liquor licenses to hire private security, screen customers for weapons, monitor their parking lots and implement “procedures for handling violent incidents and emergencies.”

“Over the years, I've done personal, executive protection and club security. One of the things that has been a constant is people don't do security until they're told they need to do security,” Amos, who owns his own private security firm, told Bisnow. “That's where the idea came from. I am doing it in response to the uptick in violence in our city and bars.”

The proposed ordinance is among the latest measures being considered by city and neighborhood leaders, who are trying to crack down on the spike in violence at commercial establishments.

In a speech Monday morning, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announced plans to create a nightlife division inside the mayor’s office with an aim to educate businesses on how to de-escalate incidents, security tactics and emergency response.

“Nightlife is a significant part of who we are as a city,” Dickens said during a speech at the Georgia World Congress Center. “But bad operators and bad patrons will be kept in line.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, speaking at a 2018 Bisnow event.

Violent crime has been on the rise in cities across the country, including Atlanta, which saw shooting incidents rise from 488 in 2019 to 711 in 2020 and 752 last year, according to the Atlanta Police Department. More than 1,800 people were shot in the city in 2020 and 2021.

Many of the most high-profile incidents have happened at restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Already in response, the city passed regulation in February 2021 that requires restaurants to certify through a public accounting firm that at least 50% of their annual receipts come through the sale of food, one that would be determined through an audit sample. It also increased penalties for establishments that violated the ordinance.

“The legislation aims to address nuisance properties and activities that are considered threats to public health and safety and ensure that establishments licensed as restaurants are operating in accordance with license requirements,” a city press release announcing the regulation stated.

Around the same time, the city council formed a committee to explore potential ways to strengthen liquor license requirements called the Atlanta Alcohol Technical Advisory Group, the third such iteration of a committee since 2003.

Those measures have yet to deliver meaningful results on the ground, and more Atlanta bars and restaurants have devolved into bullet-laden crime scenes.

Two months ago, a patron of the popular Midtown eatery Loca Luna went on a shooting spree in its parking lot. It was the third shooting at the establishment over the course of a year, one of which left a man fatally wounded.

Later that week, Loca Luna’s landlord, Halpern Enterprises, terminated the restaurant’s lease and evicted it from the premises, a move many Atlanta real estate experts said was unprecedented at the time — but Halpern was just the first among Atlanta landlords to take more strident action against their tenants, including evictions, Bisnow previously reported.

Those actions have been a rarity, and community and city leaders are increasingly focused on businesses that are licensed as a restaurant but are operated as a nightclub illegally.

“Violent crime is rooted in issues outside of liquor licensing. But because so many of the incidents happen late at night after people have been drinking, it’s often tied to the business that have the liquor licenses,” said Courtney Smith, the president of the Midtown Neighbors Association as well as chairwoman of Neighborhood Planning Unit E.

Smith is a member of the city’s ATAG III group, headed by Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, which has been tasked with proposing a list of fixes and changes to alcohol licensing codes by the fall at the earliest.

“Liquor licensing in and of itself is not a bad thing,” Smith said. “There is no one fix. There is no one piece of legislation that is going to be a magic wand that fixes this situation.”

The location of the closed Loca Luna tapas restaurant in Atlanta's Virginia-Highland neighborhood.

Atlanta businesses apply directly to the Atlanta Police Department for a liquor license, after which their application goes through a series of hearings, starting with the local NPU and the city’s licensing review board. If recommended by the board, it goes to the mayor’s office for a signature and then is held by the police department for enforcement. Every establishment also much obtain a liquor license separately from the state of Georgia.

Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer said bars and restaurants with liquor licenses spend an average of $25K a year to renew them, both from the fees required by the city and from other costs, such as legal representation. The cost for establishments to get a license for the first time can exceed $30K, she said.

There are around 2,500 establishments with liquor licenses in Atlanta and 42,000 in Georgia, including bars, golf courses, convenience stores and restaurants, according to GRA data.

Amos’ proposed ordinance would require nightclubs, entertainment venues and “certain restaurants” to have a security plan that would detail how to remove “potentially violent patrons in a manner, consistent with the law, that is designed to prevent a continuation of violent activity inside or outside the establishment.”

The plan would require venues with liquor licenses to affirm that no alcohol is permitted in the parking lot, detail any licensed private security and how many are employed, provide establishment policies that address weapon searches, parking lot controls, city noise ordinance compliances, crowd control and the whether the venues have security cameras, how video is stored and if law enforcement has access to those feeds. These safety plans would need to be submitted to the city as a piece of the annual license renewal process, according to the proposal.

Amos didn't respond to calls seeking clarification on what defines "certain restaurants" in his proposal. Bremer said that line is cause for concern.

“There were many questions in that. What restaurants are we talking about? What rules apply to what?” Bremer said. “There needs to be a game plan. There needs to be some sort of pathway for people to understand it.”

Some retail real estate experts caution that any additional requirements on restaurants could hurt business, especially if private security is required. Already, many retail landlords have hired private security as a result of the crime spike, said Amy Fingerhut, a first vice president with CBRE and one of Atlanta’s more prominent restaurant real estate brokers. Those costs are being added to tenants’ common area maintenance fees.

“Security is very expensive. And you will have a big pushback on that,” Fingerhut said. “It will be a cost that restaurateurs will have to carry and will hurt what they already spend on rent.”

Experts say some venues strive to be considered restaurants over bars and nightclubs because of looser location and operation requirements. Restaurants can sell liquor on Sundays, allow guests under 21 and operate without distance restrictions from churches, schools, hospitals, homes and libraries. 

“Restaurant B over here that says they are a restaurant, but they have off-duty APD [officer] that is outside, they got at least five security guards inside, they warn you before you come inside, possibly, or they may not warn you, to make sure you don't have a gun. So then they have a DJ going over here with entertainment. Restaurant B feels like the definition of a nightclub,” said Dorthey Hurst, chair of NPU-M’s public safety and special projects committee.

While the city does prosecute violators on liquor licenses, many of those Bisnow spoke to for this story said the city and the police department are too underfunded and understaffed to handle and investigate complaints. Last year, the city’s auditor agreed.

“We found that the License and Permits Unit failed to allocate sufficient staff to perform required procedures related to liquor licensing and enforcement processes,” Atlanta City Auditor Amanda Noble wrote in a report a year ago. "We also found that the Unit lacks procedures for verifying licensed establishments’ compliance with city code distance exemption requirements, fails to investigate all complaints lodged against establishments, and inconsistently inspects licensed establishments and issues due cause packages.

“We recommend that the Police Chief strengthen controls related to application processing, establish procedures for verifying city code requirements, allocate staff resources efficiently to comply with standard operating procedures, and develop explicit procedures for enforcing city liquor ordinances.”

The city is moving toward taking action — including apparently putting together a list of nuisance properties that it is notifying are in danger of shutting down, according to an email obtained by Bisnow from retired Alston & Bird partner Jim Stokes, who serves on the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

Stokes wrote to Atlanta City Council Member Mary Norwood that Courtney English, a senior adviser to the mayor, had told the Buckhead council that the city had amassed a list of establishments “considered to be a club claiming to be a restaurant" that the city was tracking as potentially in violation of liquor license rules.

“Courtney said that each of the establishments on the list has already been given legal notice that it is considered to be a club claiming to be a restaurant and would have to come into compliance with City requirements or have the City move to shut it down,” Stokes wrote in the email.

Bisnow submitted an open records request with Atlanta to obtain the list, but the city denied its request, citing a pending law enforcement investigation as an exemption from the state’s sunshine law.

“Providing a list of establishments under active criminal investigation would ‘tip off’ said establishments that they are under investigation,” city spokesperson Michael Smith said in an email.

Hurst, who serves on the Atlanta Citizen Review Board and has chaired the Atlanta Human Relations Commission, said if the city is able to crack down on nightclubs operating under a restaurant license, many would be forced to close, since they are operating in locations disallowed by city codes.

“I feel that there is a change coming,” Hurst said. "We can't sustain where we are now. I see certain things that are going to make things different."