By Ted Godshalk
In typical California style we recently had a small earthquake nearby and took it in stride with barely a notice. Just as I was noting that no controversies had crossed my desk in over a week, the City Council met to consider an alcohol-related issue. Like a deep underground fault line, there are tensions simmering below the surface.
It is starting to appear that if anyone wants to open a restaurant in National City and serve alcohol they can just step right up and do so. Back in the 1990’s, the city of National City pushed out a notorious strip of establishments called the “Mile of Bars.” While the Trophy Lounge still lounges there on the corner of Plaza and NC Boulevard, a few other long-time eyesores and crime magnets were removed. I don’t think that the political leaders of that time were looking very far out into the future. They were just doing the expedient thing: trying to clean up the city not only in image but also in substance. It may be argued today that the present developments envisioned for that part of town would not even be considered if the bars had not been taken out.
Today, we have a mayor and a council that are moving ahead with plans to change the image of the city. It’s a “City on the Move.” One of the stated methods to move this city is to support any restaurant that wants to do business in town with a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to sell alcohol. Last year it was Karina’s Restaurant on Highland, which over the objections of the Planning Commission (8 to 1 vote), the police, and Otis School parents and administrators, the City Council approved a permit. It’s not only Highland that is “on the move” with alcohol, it is in fact the entire city which has been opened up to expansion of alcohol serving restaurants despite proximity to schools and an over abundance of alcohol outlets.
The Council and Mayor are in danger of appearing to be pro-alcohol lobbyists while claiming to not be “prohibitionists.” Furthermore, the permitting process has started to crumble from the inside. In the latest case the Police Department is against the CUP for Casa de Taco on Sweetwater Road on the grounds that the area, with its seven existing alcohol establishments, already has a very high prevalence of criminal activity. In support of this notion of a City on the Move, however, the Planning Commission this time voted to support a CUP by a vote of 4 to 3. The shift in some commissioner’s principles now reflects pressure from above, not pressure from the community they are supposed to represent. In viewing the minutes for the Planning Commission, it is interesting to note that the consultant to the owners of Casa de Taco was also a paid consultant to Prop. S proponent and multiple campaign contributor Nick Inzunza and his Friends of South Bay campaign committee. Circle complete?
Well maybe not, but many observers are starting to view these alcohol CUPs as a done deal before they hit the Council’s agenda. Frank Lopez, an advocate for the community in his role with the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Task Force (ATOD) is convinced that the conditions are the only things that are negotiable. Last Tuesday the Council noted that the restaurant owners were a “good family” and good friends, and was poised to grant the CUP without even adding the conditions they placed on Karina’s. They stopped short of approving when Morrison and Zarate brought up objections. A public hearing will be held and the ATOD needs to start negotiations from a stronger position if this community will hold the line on this saturation of liquor licenses.
Casa de Taco has been there for a very long time but a lower crime rate in that area has not been promised. Also consider that the claim that alcohol must be served in order to compete is an argument that won’t hold up the roof in even the smallest of tremors. There is supposed to be proof of a public convenience and necessity for a new permit. Maybe for the customers of Plum Loco it might be great to go get some food and continue drinking. For the rest of us there is no proven public convenience to have alcohol at another eatery. This request serves the necessity of one, the owners of the restaurant.
The foundation of any community should be unshakable by any business pressures, budget problems, scandals, crime rates, and natural disasters. The voters have elected a council and mayor for equal representation with the understanding that sometimes friends, business acquaintances, and even family members may not propose the best thing for the entire community. In this case it doesn’t end there; there is one avenue of recourse for the community. On Thursday, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) in San Diego heard a formal appeal by the community against the Karina’s Restaurant permit. The finding of no “public convenience and necessity” by the ABC could overrule the City Council.
Ted Godshalk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org