On a balmy Saturday evening last month, families strolled along East Atlantic Avenue after dining at some of its many popular restaurants.
But around 10 p.m., the street took on a rowdier atmosphere.
By midnight, young adults packed the five blocks between Swinton and Fifth avenues, creating an electric party vibe.
Lines formed outside The Office and Tin Roof. In some cases, revelers spilled onto sidewalks, forcing pedestrians into the street.
Loud techno music poured out of The Office, a restaurant with doors opening to East Atlantic and Northeast Second Avenue. A little to the west, a live band cranked out tunes on the patio of Tin Roof.
“It’s fun. There’s a younger crowd,” said Nicole Rogers, 23, of Boca Raton. She and her sister were standing in line to get into The Office around 11:30 p.m. “We come to socialize.”
But is that late-night reputation as a fun “bar town” one that Delray Beach’s elected leaders want to cultivate?
They are grappling with how to have a vibrant downtown that attracts residents and visitors yet provides a safe experience all around.
“I am seeking the sweet spot that makes sense for our city to have a vibrant nightlife downtown,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said last month. “And that takes into account our long-standing businesses while being safe for all.”
She wants to talk with the established restaurant owners to see how they’ve been affected.
About one-third of East Atlantic Avenue restaurants push aside their tables and chairs to create dance floors on weekend nights. Problem is, nightclubs are not allowed in the city.
In December, city fire marshals began counting late-night patrons after an anonymous tipster alerted the Fire Department about potential overcrowding problems with the Dec. 18 SantaCon pub crawl, said interim City Manager Neal de Jesus, who was fire chief at the time.
At a March 28 City Commission workshop, commissioners were asked whether they wanted to allow “hybrid model” establishments, transforming from restaurant to nightclub after their food service ended. Four of the commissioners balked.
The commission told the Fire Department to bill downtown restaurants for the cost of monitoring them to make sure none exceeded capacity. Downtown restaurants and bars were each hand-delivered a letter explaining the change.
The fees are based on fire marshals’ hourly overtime pay and the number of weekend nights worked. There is a four-hour minimum.
J. Moran, Delray Beach Fire Rescue, counts club patrons as they leave The Office. Fire marshals have been assigned to ensure that establishments comply with occupancy limits after food service ends at night.
A ‘bar town’?
Restaurant owners and managers have appealed to the Downtown Development Authority, a taxing district that markets and promotes the downtown area. It acts as a liaison with local businesses and city officials.
To make city leaders aware of the value of a nighttime economy, the DDA will host a town hall at 10 a.m. July 10 at the Old School Square Fieldhouse. Jim Peters, president of the California-based Responsible Hospitality Institute, will be the guest speaker.
“Vibrant social options like bars, restaurants, live music venues and nightclubs attract entrepreneurs, visitors, residents,” Laura Simon, DDA executive director, wrote in an email. “They create jobs and drive economic development within the city and business district.”
Petrolia said she wants to keep the existing rules. If the city lets the restaurants turn into nightclubs after a set time, she’s concerned that Delray Beach’s downtown — with restaurants concentrated in a five-block area — would be known as a “bar town.”
During the second half of July, while the City Commission takes a break, City Attorney Lynn Gelin will research how nearby cities handle their nightlife issues and compile a memo for commissioners to consider.
“Even if hybrids are allowed, the restaurants would get only a slight bump in their occupancy limit,” Gelin said, “not the double and triple number of patrons they are packing in.”
Case in point: On April 7, The O.G., a bar on Southeast Second Avenue, was shut down by fire marshals with the help of city police. Its occupancy limit is 59 people. The fire marshals counted 267 patrons, according to de Jesus. It has paid bills totaling $12,390.55 for April and May.
De Jesus likened the occupancy problem to speeding every day and not getting caught. It’s still illegal. He said he doesn’t worry about fires. He’s more concerned about potential violence and the city’s liability if it looked the other way.
Some restaurant managers are upset by the bills.
Victor Korobka, general manager of Buddha Sky Bar, told commissioners in May that he’s “feeling not wanted.” Korobka said he has helped feed homeless people on Thanksgiving and participated in the annual Savor the Avenue outdoor dining event that raises money for charity.
Buddha can appeal its bills of $7,842.25 for April and $10,203.56 for May, according to the city attorney’s office. Appeals will be heard by the acting fire chief and then move on to the city’s Board of Adjustments.
As of June 28, no appeals were filed.
Johnnie Brown’s is another unhappy restaurant. The 10-year-old, open-air eatery features live classic rock music.
“Many of our regular customers are maturing boomers, and at least 70 to 75 percent of them are locals from the surrounding community,” manager Bruce McDonald wrote in an email in mid-June.
Restaurants are working with the city to count their patrons and keep occupancy within the limits set by state law. As a result, Johnnie Brown’s is no longer monitored since it has been able to show it can maintain legal occupancy levels on its own without the help of the fire marshals. But it did receive bills for April and May, which “are under analysis,” McDonald wrote.
Pros and cons
Tin Roof management would like to pursue a “hybrid model” to increase late-night occupancy, said manager Christina Godbout.
The restaurant, which features live music, paid a $7,220.13 bill in April. Its May bill of $6,106.67, due by July 3, will be paid, Godbout said.
The city will consider the pros and cons of allowing hybrid businesses with late-night crowds. Increased trash and public safety concerns are at the top of the issues list. Other issues include what effect permitting this operational change might have on other established businesses and the overall quality of life for city residents.
“Safety is the main concern,” said Christian Prakas, a restaurant broker who fills Atlantic Avenue spaces. “But if a restaurant is paying $100 a square foot, it can’t afford the rent if it has to pay a monthly fee” for occupancy monitoring.
At least one restaurant, though, has found a way to profit from the nightlife without being charged a fee.
Sazio, an Italian restaurant on East Atlantic, closes before midnight, manager Hector Zuluaga said.
But it keeps a window open to sell slices of pizza and bottled water until 3:30 a.m. on weekends.
“The nightlife is good for us,” Zuluaga said.