In select cities across the U.S., pedestrian revelers wander freely through downtown districts with libations in hand, checking out galleries, visiting boutiques or listening to a street performer. It’s a practice commonly seen in cities like New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, Missouri and Savannah, Ga.
Over the years, the City of Huntsville sought to revamp outdoor alcohol consumption regulations by first expanding patio dining and then creating Arts & Entertainment (A&E) districts. The districts are often referred to as “purple cup districts” because alcoholic beverages are served in distinctive purple cups.
“These districts are special because they’re one more quality-of-life amenity our citizens can enjoy,” Mayor Tommy Battle said. “They offer an opportunity to visit with good friends in a casual way and maybe even make some new friends. It’s bringing people from all backgrounds together, and that’s what we’re all about.”
The A&E districts are not only a big hit with patrons, but restaurants, bars and retailers also benefit from the increased foot traffic.
“They’ve certainly increased the traffic of people coming in to get a beer or cocktail and walking around,” said Chance Brown, general manager and head chef at Below the Radar on Holmes Avenue. “It’s given Huntsville a progressive perception because Huntsville is not indicative of what most people think Alabama is.”
How we got here
The creation of the districts didn’t happen overnight, but instead progressed slowly. Prior to 2013, Huntsville’s outdoor alcohol consumption was limited to outdoor dining. When the City Council approved a measure in 2010 to create a sidewalk café license for bars and lounges, it was considered a progressive move.
In 2012, the Alabama Legislature enabled cities to create districts that allowed pedestrians to have open containers within the parameters of the district. The next year, in March 2013, the Huntsville City Council created the first two A&E districts – the Meridian and Quigley districts, which were later combined into one. The Providence district was also established in 2013, while the S.R. Butler Green District was created in 2017. The fourth district at MidCity was adopted in March 2020.
Americans are so dependent on our automobiles, but if we can get people out of their cars, we can activate our streetscapes and look at new outdoor opportunities.
“Before these districts, downtown activities were considered ‘nightlife,’” said Thomas Nunez, Manager of Planning Services. “The districts allowed for a new form of recreation, while also creating more pedestrian activities. Being able to mix those two creates a vibrant downtown.”
Nunez said A&E districts were heavily studied and scrutinized prior to Council adoption. Planners looked at impacts on everything, from pedestrian access to litter and crime.
It was important to get input from different stakeholder groups, including businesses, Huntsville Police, City administration and citizens, he added.
Public safety concerns were top of mind for some, but the A&E districts have remained largely peaceful. An HPD official said the presence of law enforcement within the districts has not only helped keep people on their best behavior, but it’s also allowed police to forge stronger bonds with the public.
“Our officers enjoy working in the entertainment districts on foot or riding around on their bikes,” said Capt. Scott Hudson, South Precinct Commander. “It gives us a chance to interact with the community and build more personal relationships in a more relaxed environment.”
Nunez believes the A&E districts not only increase quality of life, but they also forced the City to re-examine its long-term infrastructure plans. He explained ongoing improvements to downtown sidewalks, many of which predated the 1950s, will meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements while enhancing pedestrian access.
“The big thing with the districts is just getting people out of the cars,” he said. “Americans are so dependent on our automobiles, but if we can get people out of their cars, we can activate our streetscapes and look at new outdoor opportunities.”
At its May 27 meeting, Council voted to extend the Quigley district to include a new parking garage at the intersection of Holmes Avenue and Greene Street. Brown said the move will allow Below the Radar and others to host a block party this month featuring live music.
That kind of experience emphasizes what downtown Huntsville has to offer, said Chad Emerson, president and CEO of Downtown Huntsville, Inc.
“The entertainment districts allow us to enhance live music with buskers throughout the districts as well as allowing guests to stroll through our beautiful city center with a great local craft beverage in our now-iconic purple cups,” he said.
Looking ahead, Nunez believes a fifth A&E district could become a reality. Until then, he said the existing districts will continue to flourish.
The bustling MidCity District could become the City’s main hot spot, especially when the 8,000-seat Huntsville Amphitheater opens in 2022.
“This is not about alcohol,” Nunez said. “We’re putting a lot of components together, like recreation and the arts, to create vibrant points within the City. With those components working together, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth.”
Click here to more about Huntsville’s Arts & Entertainment districts.