By Krista Schwimmer
In recent months, violent incidents in Venice have garnered even mainstream media’s attention. Some residents claim violence has risen due to transients and homeless encampments. Other residents understand the link between too many alcohol licenses and increased crime rates, a link backed up by numerous studies, according to Sarah Blanch of the Institute for Public Strategies. With a total of 108 alcohol licenses, Venice has reached a tipping point. According to the Westside Impact Project, the density of alcohol sales outlets in Venice — 34 per square mile — is among the highest in Los Angeles County, where the overall average is four outlets per square mile.
To address solutions to this insane number of alcohol licenses, on March 11th, the Institute for Public Strategies held a free public workshop at the Oakwood Recreation Center. Guest speakers included three women from the Institute itself: Brenda Simmons, Executive Vice-President, Sarah Blanch, Westside Impact Project Manager, and Tiffany Burgess, Westside Impact Project Manager. Also on the speaking panel were Tricia Keane, Director of Land Use & Planning for Los Angeles, and Claudia Martin, Neighborhood Prosecutor for Venice.
Simmons began by stating that the Institute works with communities to solve alcohol related problems and are not “alcohol nazis.” Funded by LA County, they work in Venice, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica, focusing on the retail availability of alcohol. Blanch stated they were there in response to the community’s frustration around the ABC licensing process locally and at the state level. “We think the system is broken in a couple of areas,” Blanch said. They were there to talk about ways the community might work together to fix the system. These solutions, she said, were at a local, not state level.
Two main solutions were presented by first Tricia Keane, and then Brenda Simmons.
Keane introduced and explained the Condition Compliance Unit (CCU), a program brought forth by Councilmember Mike Bonin. The CCU would oversee compliance when conditions are placed on permit project approval, making sure that the conditions are being applied and enforced. The unit would also keep track of permit conditions and expiration dates so permits do not lapse. Although compliance would first be around Conditional Use Beverage (CUB) permits and Conditional Use Entertainment (CUX) permits, eventually the CCU would handle all conditions attached to approving permits. “It puts the responsibility of – for lack of a better word – policing the permit conditions on the Planning Department. It does not put it on individuals who have to keep close track of a business because we’re supposed to be doing that for you.” (One has to wonder how any unit coming out of the same City Planning Department, working with same Building and Safety Department that led Venice to this point, could ever be trusted.)
Keane seemed confident that the CCU would soon receive funding from Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), where it is slated to go next.
Although penalties would apply for businesses violating conditions, Keane said the businesses would be given a chance to first fix their problems. Claudia Martin added that if there is a criminal element, the penalty would first be probation, followed by fines. For misdemeanors, however, the top amount for a fine is only $1,000 and 6 months in county jail, hardly a deterrent for successful bars and restaurants.
The CCU’s also do nothing to help with current developments, such as 259 Hampton, that have already slipped through the City’s greasy fingers.
Simmons introduced a second solution to curbing alcohol licenses on a local level, something rarely used. Called Public Convenience or Necessity, (PCN) it is a state law that places the onus on a business to prove there is a need for such business. If a city denies Public Convenience, ABC cannot grant them an alcohol license. PCN’s come into play in high crime areas (120% of the city’s average); or, in areas where there is a high concentration of licenses. Simmons stated that almost every tract in Los Angeles is over-saturated.
Two major drawbacks to PCN’s are that they cannot be used for restaurants and any criteria for determining them is, according to Simmons, “very arbitrary.” So, PCN’s would not help the community in its fight against Sauce on Hampton and Gjusta’s Bakery. To address this second concern, Simmons announced the creation of a volunteer group to work with City Council to help set conditions for PCN’s. A sign-up sheet was then passed around the room.
Simmons also brought up specifics on how individuals can protest an alcohol license. Listed in the free manual given to every participant were thirteen common protest issues. They included being within 100 feet of a residence; being within 600 feet of schools, playgrounds or nonprofit youth facilities; over-concentration/high crime; parking; and traffic.
Due to a previous court decision, Simmons mentioned that the City does not have the authority to put regulations locally on the sale of alcohol, specifically. Jim Mosher, JD, an Alcohol Policy Specialist in California, has recently put an opinion together that could change all of that. After the City Attorney reviews his opinion, Simmons says it will be sent to neighborhood councils.
One community member, Judy Branfman, asked Brenda Simmons for a moratorium on alcohol licensing requests in Venice.
Simmons first replied that she didn’t think that was likely to happen, then asked Keane if this is even possible.
“That would be something we need to discuss with the City’s Attorney’s Office to see if that’s even an option,” Keane replied. Keane went on to simply promote more delay tactics saying we need more discussion that would include all stakeholders, thus making it a “fair process.” She assured the community that she understood their “absolute frustration with the current process as it exists,” and once more, promoted the CCU, saying this unit would expedite things.
According to Joan Wrede, and other community members there that night, Bonin is acting too late. “How can you, all of you, expect us to have hope, to have faith, to try and support what you say you’re trying to do?” Wrede asked. “The city is not there for us. I don’t think anybody can deny that.”
As Venice struggles to maintain some kind of connection to her heritage, Bonin keeps serving up bad brew. What about now? How about serving up Councilmember’s exorbitant salary, greater even then the governor’s salary, somewhere in the future when Bonin actually delivers? Now, I’ll drink to that!
Ironically, only hours after the community workshop, a drunk driver plowed into nine cars on Pacific Avenue and Venice Way. This time, no one was hurt. I am a woman who pays heed to such omens. Councilmember Bonin, I hope you do, too.
Above: March 11 public workshop on liquor licenses in Venice