The Triumph of the Go-Cup

Drinkers may be enjoying the open-container zones that are proliferating in America's nightlife districts, but they don't thrill everybody.
March 15, 2017
By Jeremy Bagott  |  Contributor
A real estate appraiser and writer on land-use and finance issues

If this Friday's St. Patrick's Day festivities seem particularly rambunctious, here's one reason: City halls and statehouses have begun making common cause with on-the-go drinkers in recent years, hoping the latter will perambulate in America's new open-container districts and spend wads of cash at restaurants and public houses without getting so sozzled that they stumble into verboten areas and cause a scene with neighborhood residents.

Hoping to summon the magic of New Orleans' French Quarter or Memphis' Beale Street, lawmakers across the country have recently moved to greenlight year-round open-container districts, an effort that includes some unlikely places in the Bible Belt, the Rust Belt, and the Plains and the Mountain states. Not everybody is thrilled with the idea of legalizing the go-cup, raising concerns about public liability, new pressures on police, alcohol-fueled public disorder and sloshed revelers climbing behind the wheel after a night of street partying. So far, though, the open-container advocates seem to be carrying the day.

No state has become a bigger fermentation vessel for the concept than Ohio. In 2015, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill allowing the creation of open-container zones across the Buckeye State, where they've been given the peppy designation of "outdoor refreshment areas." Middletown, population 49,000, set up the state's first such district. It relies on potentially crapulous pub-crawlers reading maps and signposts lest they wobble into hostile climes and get ticketed.

Last April, the Canton City Council voted unanimously to create one. In August, developers of Cleveland's Flats East Bank residential-retail project applied for that city's first open-container zone under the new law. Not to be outdone, Cincinnati is weighing the creation of its own open-container district at a similar mixed-use development, The Banks.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, advocates for the Railyard district hope that its open-container zone will keep millennials from moving away after graduating from the University of Nebraska. (That thinking doesn't consider the possibility that some less-rollicking Cornhuskers may commit to moving away as a result of walking the zone.) And the Omaha City Council unanimously passed an ordinance in January allowing developers to create open-container zones in that city.

But while many city officials, civic boosters and local developers believe parts of their localities are perfect for alcohol-fueled walkabouts, there are many unanswered questions from a public policy standpoint. For one, are taxpayers absorbing more liability when cities encourage drinkers to imbibe outside the stern gaze of a bartender? More concerning is that the zones put city police into the role of determining which open-air carousers are consuming verboten bring-your-own intoxicating liquors and which are buying from approved watering holes. There are also the practical issues of increased littering, public urination and public drunkenness.

Historical ironies abound, too, since many cities were founded as a way to control the proliferation of alcohol in unincorporated county areas during the temperance movement of the 19th century. But perhaps the greatest irony involves New Orleans, the nation's sidewalk-daiquiri capital. It is now weighing measures to keep drinkers behind closed doors on Bourbon Street as it deals with a series of deadly shootings in the French Quarter and the threat of vehicle-borne attacks.

In January, Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a $40 million plan to cut crime in the city. The very un-laissez les bons temps rouler plan includes closing the doors of bars after 3 a.m. and police sweeps of Bourbon Street to move people inside bars and discourage patrons from taking road sodas on street vision-quests. The February incident in which a suspected drunk driver injured dozens of revelers has only intensified the effort. And after high-profile shootings in its open-container zone in 2016, Mobile, Ala., is re-evaluating its public-drinking zone.

But clearly most of the momentum is toward legalizing the go-cup. Roswell, Ga., City Councilman Mike Palermo wants to expand an existing open-container zone into the city's historic downtown square. He hopes drinkers will gain a greater appreciation for civic history (if through beer goggles). But the expanded zone would contain two parks, which may become a stumbling point -- literally and politically. Another Atlanta suburb, Sandy Springs, is preparing to welcome restaurants into its new open-container district.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, a state that has provided public matching grants to craft brewers as part of its economic-development strategy, a pair of bills is being debated in the legislature that could allow open-container districts in the Old Dominion. And in Colorado, bar owners in Fort Collins are hoping to generate interest for an open-container zone at the city's East Lawn at Foothills Mall. That may be fitting, because as any city gardener will tell you, lawns are a big hit with migratory drinkers seeking temporary repose or relief.