Update on Nov. 16, 2023: Boulder City Council unanimously repealed the 2013 liquor rules for University Hill.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