City Heights fears rising population could bring more alcohol retailers

October 25, 2010

By Megan Burks

Residents and activists hoping to reduce the number of stores selling alcohol in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood are worried that the latest U.S. Census numbers could make their job harder by bolstering the population figures used to justify the addition of new liquor outlets.

The U.S. Census Bureau offered “a brighter tomorrow for everyone” this year in a push to reach every American resident. An accurate count carried the promise of federal dollars for infrastructure and services where it was needed most.

The state awards new liquor licenses based on the number of people and alcohol outlets that already exist in that Census tract. Though the Tower Bar and Big City Liquor sit just a narrow residential street apart from one another, they are in two different Census tracts and, thus, bear little influence on decisions regarding how much alcohol is too much alcohol in the area. Advocates say the state model ignores community health and are calling for solutions at the local level.

While the push to be counted was welcomed by social workers in City Heights—where the high immigrant and refugee population makes social services important, but data collection tricky—some now worry the neighborhood’s ballooning Census tracts could have unintended consequences.

With the approval of new liquor licenses resting largely on the number of people living near proposed vendors, some said they fear the brightest tomorrow will be reserved for those selling spirits in an already oversaturated market. There are 20 outlets that sell alcohol per square mile in City Heights, versus seven per square mile citywide, according to new data from Health Equity by Design, a partnership between Walk San Diego and the county.

“Awarding licenses based on Census numbers, as they are under state law, can be an Achilles’ heel,” said James Mosher, an attorney who specializes in alcohol policy.

“With the way things work now, a license will be issued even if you can crawl from one liquor store to another,” said Dawn Kamali, an alcohol and drug prevention specialist with SAY San Diego.

Location of violent assaults in City Heights. Click on image to see full-size map.

And it could be issued even if the immediate community suffers from high violent crime rates, frequent vandalism and disproportionate levels of obesity, said Kamali and her colleague, Paul Krupski. The pair said such density of liquor licenses is a cocktail in need of distilling—it’s the result of state regulation that ignores community context, local regulations with too many exceptions and too much political influence from the alcohol industry, they said.

SAY San Diego represented the community in a 2002 license protest that illustrates the issue. Residents near 97 Supermarket fought to keep the specialty grocery store from obtaining a liquor license, but lost.

Alcohol Game is a Numbers Game

By way of its Census numbers—which included underage residents—the blighted 4600 block of University Avenue where 97 Supermarket sat could absorb another alcohol retailer. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued the license legally, despite the Asian market’s proximity to a liquor store just 200 feet away.

Further down the littered block was a peeling Egyptian Revival façade containing Big City Liquor and, across the street from it, the Tower Bar and an adult theatre. Neither the bar nor the theatre factored into the decision; both were in a different Census tract, though just a crosswalk away. According to Kamali, high crime and poverty rates in the area also didn’t hold any weight despite being considered outcomes of high liquor availability among advocates.

According to Health Equity by Design, there were about twice as many violent crimes per 1,000 residents in City Heights than those per 1,000 people citywide last year. Of the more than 300 assaults and homicides that have occurred in the neighborhood this year, about 70 percent of them occurred in Census tracts where there were three or more liquor outlets. The San Diego Police Department did not comment on whether these crimes were alcohol-related; many of these incidents also happened along thoroughfares with quick access to transit and freeways.

This map shows where liquor stores are located in City Heights. A comparison to the map above shows that both assaults and liquor stores are clustered together north City Heights, a phenomenon that community health advocates say isn't a coincidence.

Mosher said a high density of liquor licenses can propel a “vicious circle” that accelerates the downturn of a community economically, as well as socially. He said it creates blight and nuisances that keep other business from entering the neighborhood and banks from lending to new businesses. The phenomenon also keeps property values low, further limiting wealth in the community, he said.

“Allowing these kinds of places to be present reproduces social inequities,” said Jung Choi, a professor of sociology at San Diego State University. “It’s a double edge sword because it can encourage residents to partake in unhealthy behavior and allows outsiders to place blame on the people in the community instead of the environment they live in.”

Mosher said it is Sacramento that binds ABC to the numbers instead of to the people who live down the street from liquor stores.

“It’s not that those at ABC aren’t dedicated public servants who want to do the right thing,” Mosher said. “They’re working with the laws created by the legislature.”

Care for the neighbors of license holders is reserved for the local government. While cities can’t outright ban an establishment from selling alcohol, they can limit when and how they sell it with a conditional use permit.

Aged Liquor Stores and Others Exempt

The 97 Supermarket did have restrictions placed on its license via such a permit. It was limited to selling beer and wine so long as it wasn’t sold after 9:00 p.m. or as a single serving—“nothing the homeboys or the homeless could take to the park,” Kamali said. But legal exceptions to the rule mean many license-holders operate with little responsibility to their neighbors.

Bars and restaurants, stores larger than 15,000 square feet and those that existed before the CUP was enacted in 1995 are exempt from anything beyond standard state regulation. Many liquor stores in the neighborhood are housed in buildings that show their age, not just with grime and disrepair, but with the dramatic architecture of eras passed. Such age is why Big City Liquor can operate just a narrow residential street away from the Tower Bar. It doesn’t matter if the store changes ownership; the license is tethered to its location.

“Once a liquor store moves into the community, it’s going to take an act of God for it to go away,” Kamali said.

Under the Influence of Alcohol’s Lobby

Such force isn’t needed to reverse history alone—business owners and the alcohol lobby will always have more money and “slicker” lawyers than the residents who challenge them, according to Kamali.

“More than likely, when Dawn and I walk in [to protest a new license or have one revoked] their lawyer is going to mop the floor with us,” Krupski said.

In addition to legal representation, money from the alcohol industry goes to the decision-makers themselves. In San Diego, the Neighborhood Market Association, which represents independently owned markets and lobbies on their behalf, made campaign contributions to Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer. Locally, contributions from member markets, other license holders and brands like Bacardi, USA totaled less than 10 percent of campaign funds for both politicians and failed to stop a city ban on alcohol at beaches, but advocates point to the state legislature as proof of lobbyists’ reach.

The NMA opposed state legislation that would have increased taxes on alcohol, extended the review period for new licenses and limited tobacco licenses near schools. Last month, the governor approved a bill that allows alcoholic beverage tasting in retail settings.

“I don’t want to throw a blanket over them all, but being anti-business as an elected official can be very unpopular,” Krupski said. “That’s often what they are cast as during the process if they side with the community.”

The Solution is Social

Mark Arabo, NMA’s president and a license holder, said the markets that sell liquor are, in fact, members of the community.

“Markets do not attract nor create violence,” Arabo said. “They work very well with the police department in order to fight against any crime that arises in their area. They are positive contributors to the community and provide goods and services which are essential to the surrounding area. They provide employment and generate revenue for the cities nearby.”

“We can’t just boo and hiss liquor stores,” said Michelle Zive, a registered dietician who works in the community. “This is just another point where we have to work together instead of making villains out of the business owners.”

Zive’s sentiment reflects an autonomy echoed by many who spoke with HealthyCal.org. Janette Neely, a City Heights resident, recommended installing a deemed approved ordinance, which is a city law that requires that all liquor retail outlets operate to minimum standards and resolve nuisances on premises. According to Neely, a DAO would give residents the opportunity to open a dialogue with community businesses and the police.

“It would create a circle of people who are good neighbors,” Neely said. “We have to own our neighborhood—rather than call the police, we should call the owner.”

Kamali and Krupski, too, said a community dialogue is the answer. They said they’d like to see longer and more effective notification of new license applications and more community outreach regarding how residents can work within the system to maintain or improve their quality of life.

“A lot of times we’re portrayed as prohibitionists,” Krupski said. “But it’s really about public safety, health and responsibility.”

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