Business owners on University Hill have said strict liquor laws in the area are hurting them. Credit John Herrick.

Update on Nov. 16, 2023: Boulder City Council unanimously repealed the 2013 liquor rules for University Hill.

As part of an effort to revitalize University Hill, the Boulder City Council on Thursday, Nov. 16, will decide whether to repeal alcohol regulations passed a decade ago that sought to reduce partying and drinking in the student neighborhood. 

The 2013 rules require that any new bar or restaurant with a liquor license must generate at least half its gross income from food sales and close by 11 p.m. The rules were intended to change a “climate of excessive drinking” and “destructive culture” in the neighborhood abutting CU Boulder, according to media reports at the time. 

But today, some councilmembers believe the rules are hurting bars and restaurants in an area where sales tax revenue has largely stagnated over the last decade. This has been particularly evident in the wake of Covid-19 and the ongoing construction of a hotel and conference center. 

“The 2013 ordinance was a measure to punish students. And, indirectly, it punished the businesses along with them,” Councilmember Matt Benjamin, who graduated from CU Boulder in 2005, told Boulder Reporting Lab. 

Benjamin and other critics of the ordinance view it as a form of discrimination. The liquor rules apply to businesses on University Hill and nowhere else in the city. 

“The Hill has always been treated as a second-class place,” Benjamin said. “This is a discriminatory ordinance that unfairly targets restaurants just based on their geographic location.”

The proposed rule change is part of a broader package of revisions city councilmembers are expected to make to the city’s “use table” — which determines where different types of housing and businesses can be located. The primary goal of these land-use changes is to streamline the regulations and encourage more 15-minute neighborhoods, where every Boulderite would have access to most daily necessities within walking distance of their home, according to city officials. 

The land-use changes have been in the works since 2018. In August 2023, the Boulder City Council requested that city officials draft an ordinance to repeal the 2013 liquor regulations as part of the use table reforms. This decision will likely be the current council’s last major policy decision before a new council is sworn in on Dec. 7. 

The proposal has rekindled a longstanding tension between homeowners and student renters, who live in the residential neighborhood in part due the university’s inadequate supply of on-campus housing. In response to residents’ concerns, including ongoing frustrations associated with house parties, the city council has passed tougher laws regulating noise, trash and weeds in the past two years. 

The University Hill Neighborhood Association opposes the proposal to repeal the 2013 ordinance. The group is urging councilmembers to leave the rules in place and launch a border community engagement process. 

“The regulations have worked, but there are elements that can be removed or revised if you provide us with a public process that would allow neighbors to work with business owners,” states a letter from the association. 

Councilmember Tara Winer said she is seeking a “hybrid” approach. This could include allowing businesses to stay open after 11 p.m., but not repealing the 2013 ordinance altogether. Winer is also considering requesting public safety measures, such as additional lighting on the Hill. 

“I don’t think we can leave the University Hill district like it is because it is dying a slow death,” she said. “I want to ease those regulations.” 

In 2013, business owners opposed the ordinance, and they have been lining up in support of the proposal to repeal it. Supporters of the repeal include the Boulder Chamber, The Sink and Z2 Entertainment, which operates the Fox Theatre. 

“I believe these regulations unfairly hurt businesses in a district that is already struggling,” Jake Hudson-Humphrey, the director of communications and events at the University Hill Merchants Association, said during a Planning Board meeting in August 2023, referring to the University Hill business district. “Our district needs all the help it can get.” 

The changes come as the city is discussing how to revitalize the University Hill General Improvement District, or UHGID. From 2010 to 2022, sales and use tax revenue from the district increased about 16%, according to city revenue reports. Over that same time, sales and use tax revenue for the city as a whole has nearly doubled. 

At the August meeting, the Planning Board recommended that the Boulder City Council postpone making the changes, in part due to the lack of a public engagement process related to repealing the 2013 ordinance.

Councilmember Benjamin said it is important to first make sure businesses are operating from an even footing. He said that would make for a more honest conversation. 

“It’s inappropriate to hold these businesses hostage and then ask them to negotiate,” he said. “Let’s start with everyone being treated the same. And then let’s have that conversation.” 

John Herrick is a reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for Email:

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  1. It’s difficult to imagine the stupidity involved in destroying your own neighborhood’s business district. We knew that when Ken Wilson, Lisa Spalding et al marched this thing out a decade ago that it was going to destroy the business district, but the magnitude of the destruction even I couldn’t foresee. The Hill business district is Boulder’s Tenderloin. It’s the only blighted neighborhood within 20 miles of Boulder and it’s smack dab in the middle of Boulder. How the neighbors have sat idly by and allowed this is another interesting component to this story. Sad.

    1. Agreed wholeheartedly. When this nightmare was put in place, it was clearly just a way for the members of the Hill Neighborhood Association who didn’t even own property on the hill and had MANY conflicts of interest (enough to end up getting kicked off of every board in the city). At the time, the Hill was still a vibrant place, regardless of the fact that the city and PD unfairly (and often illegally) clamping down on both businesses and the students they served. For years prior. This draconian culture made it impossible for many businesses in the hill to break even, much less turn a profit. The only bit of entertainment still there is now the Fox, where there once was an EXTREMELY vibrant music scene on the Hill, drawing some of the most famed acts in American music history.

      From one who works in the business, alcohol sales are absolutely necessary to have a successful venue, as ticket sales or door fees do not remotely cover the cost of bringing in acts. Alcohol sales (which are extremely profitable) are where the money to pay the rent comes from, the music is the draw for the crowds. Food is good, but barely pays the bills on it’s own, and absolutely can’t fund music, etc. Few places up there have the square footage to have alcohol, food, and music. Not to mention the overhead to do all three; alcohol sales are absolutely necessary to make the venue successful. All the City Council’s actions up there have done is to push the partying from venues and bars into far more dangerous house parties. I’m extremely glad the Council is seeing error to their ways, and truly hope that this unfair legislation targeting legitimate business owners is repealed, as it never should have been written in the first place.

  2. Really? The “neighborhood” is “destroyed” and by bringing back more alcohol, it will be regenerated? Sad, but if I am honest with myself, I must succumb to the fact that this is the culture we are. But, it’s hard to be honest. So I remain optimistic that the neighborhood has other options to pull itself out of its “destruction”.

    1. Markis, please share with me another large state university with a blighted business district adjacent to its campus. Not to mention that Boulder is perhaps the most wealthy city to host a state university. Name just one. I’ll wait patiently for your response.

  3. ….I came out to see the ” Hill ” specifically in 1969 from my fraternity life in the Deep South. It was dynamic and exciting and awesome 😎 It’s refreshing to imagine that the Hill is going to be reborn and after 40 years here I support that efforts. Love and light Boulder.

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