Plenty of Booze

June 19, 2007 No Comments

Pacific Beach. 2:00 p.m. A typical, sunny summer Saturday. The smell of spilled beer mingles with sea mist and wet wood. I’m bar-hopping, and not one establishment I enter at midday is empty. Many are almost full. The people are predominantly white, under 30, and showing off a lot of tanned and tattooed skin. I see muscles, cleavage, midriffs, baseball caps on backwards, baggy shorts, tank tops, flip-flops, sunglasses, dyed hair, skirts and halter-tops, lots of makeup, lots of perfume, and lots and lots of cheap beers and shots.

* * *

Pacific Beach. 2:00 a.m. A typical, starry summer night.

The bar crowds are dispersing, headed toward burritos and casual hook-ups and after-parties and drunken sleep.

I’m making my way along the main strip, taking in the slurred conversations, the stumbling around, and the intensified police presence.

I walk almost a mile on Garnet, from Haines Avenue down to Crystal Pier. I expect to see a fight or two, rampant littering, drunks getting into the driver’s seats of cars, people peeing behind Dumpsters, and traffic backed up by gathering mobs in the street.

But I don’t. I don’t see any of that.

And the next morning, that same area seems so clean and serene. It’s impossible to tell that thousands of people were partying in the area just eight or nine hours before.

* * *

Pacific Beach Middle School auditorium. 7:00 p.m. It’s Monday, June 4, and over 100 local residents have gathered to contribute their opinions to a meeting of the Beach and Alcohol Task Force. From looking at the crowd, one gets the impression of a mature, intelligent, well-dressed, well-paid, and quite vocal minority trying to organize against an absent horde of loud, dirty, troublemaking twentysomethings.

A sample of selected quotes from the meeting make it sound as if I’ve stepped into the midst of an epic battle for freedom.

“Storm city hall!…”

“The situation is frustrating and it’s getting worse.”

“Most of our problems in the beach area relate to alcohol: house parties, trash, public urination.”

“We’re here to find a middle ground, whether it’s a temporary alcohol ban, or a selective ban on certain beach areas or on certain holidays.”

“My freedom to be able to enjoy the beach the way I want to is in jeopardy.”

“I’m a big fan of my rights to go have a beer on the beach.”

“We have to remember all the businesses that are supported and all the jobs that are created by the people who come to the beach areas, and, yes, these people enjoy drinking and going to bars.”

“There’s a whole list of nitpicking little items that we’re said to be reaching consensus on but not one of which is designed to reduce drinking in the beach area by a single ounce. This is a farce.”

I’m reminded of the prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, with a minor shift from the families of Verona’s star-crossed lovers, might apply to our beach area’s star-crossed population:

Multiple factions, often unlike in dignity,

In the fair beach communities, where we lay our scene,

From ongoing grudge to ongoing mutiny,

Where easy alcohol makes the easygoing neighborhood unclean…

* * *

The people involved in the beach-area alcohol issue can be neatly divided into five star-cross’d delegations. We have the Policy Makers, the Policy Enforcers, the Facilitators, the Non-Enjoyers, and the Enjoyers.

The Policy Makers are the federal, state, and city governments and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). The Policy Enforcers are the police and the ABC. The Facilitators are the business owners, who are members of a group called “Discover PB.” The Non-Enjoyers are the conscientious people who have their interests articulated by the group “Save PB.” And the Enjoyers are the visitors, most renters, and some property owners, who are fond of our beach area just the way it is and have formed a countergroup of their own, “Free PB.”

The Enjoyers and Non-Enjoyers are engaged in a conflict over beach rights and liquor licensing that has escalated steadily for the past ten years or so.

On the one side, Free PB folks “promote the expansion of individual rights, privileges, and freedoms,” and on the other, the Save PB members “promote safety, awareness, respect, and enrichment.”

In the words of one local, it’s “the irresponsible partiers versus those who care.”

The tension between these two factions is no doubt good for Pacific Beach. Without the pressure from Save PB, one could imagine the Free PBers letting the place go to pot. And without the parties, PB would surely lose its hip, relaxed identity. Instead, the party goes on, though it ends earlier, and they clean up after.

But one wonders at the current state of compromise.

And no one can ignore the statistics:

According to 2005 police crime-analysis data for Pacific Beach: 1292 open-container violations, 357 people arrested for being drunk in public, 533 DUIs, 320 minors in possession of alcohol.

And in Mission Beach: 1191 open-container violations in 2005, 55 arrested for public drunkenness, 93 DUIs, 398 minors in possession of alcohol.

In the beach areas: 2692 calls for noise-related party disturbances in 2005. That’s over 7 per night, all year long. In Mission Beach, it was 532 house parties, and in Pacific Beach, it was 2160 calls for parties and noise. Each of these calls costs the city roughly $150-$200, for four officers in two squad cars to take an hour out of their nights to break up a noisy gathering.

Pacific Beach alone represents 15.13 percent of all alcohol-related arrests in the city.

And the bottom line: 179 liquor licenses exist in an area where recent overconcentration legislation calls for no more than 49 licenses.

* * *

“This issue’s been around for quite some time,” Councilmember Kevin Faulconer says. “And what I wanted to do was get community leaders from both sides of the issue together around the table to do a couple of things. We need to look at these issues holistically. We need to get information from the ABC people, from the police, and from the community and to see if there are areas that we can agree upon and change.”

Faulconer is explaining to me the driving force behind the formation of the Beach and Alcohol Task Force, a group that met for the first time in October 2006 and has continued to convene monthly ever since.

So, I ask him, mission accomplished?

“Yes,” Faulconer says. “I think the group’s been very productive. People have been open-minded on both sides. There’s obviously some issues there’s been no concurrence on — on the alcohol-on-the-beach issues — but then it got to some of the other issues, like, what is it that we can do — and there’s been 16 recommendations where we’ve reached consensus. I think it’s a reflection of how much work a lot of people have put in. Overall, I think we have a group that’s committed to looking at things in a rational manner, asking, ‘What are the facts? Let’s look at crime statistics, let’s look at licenses.’ And that’s where we are.”

Following is a list of the 16 recommendations to which Faulconer is referring. Implementation in some form has begun on most.

1) SDPD off-duty officer patrols, funded by local beach business owners

2) Beach-specific neighborhood code compliance cfficers

3) Administrative fines of up to $1000 for party hosts in beach areas

4) SDPD: “Out of Cars and Into Bars” program, where officers visit and acquaint themselves with the staffs of liquor-serving establishments

5) SDPD: bicycle patrols

6) Community Court, where adult offenders can perform community service in lieu of traditional sentencing

7) DUI kits for all patrol cars

8) Security cameras in Pacific Beach, along the boardwalk and pier

9) Mandatory security plan for on-site liquor establishments

10) Crime statistic information gathering by the SDPD

11) Public opinion baseline survey

12) Promote taxi cab use through incentives

13) Designated driver program in PB

14) Drunk driving education program

15) Concise webpage with pertinent enforcement phone numbers

16) University participation for student house parties, including reflecting arrests on a student’s academic record

Given the crime statistics, one may wonder why so much emphasis has been put upon compromise instead of an all-out ban.

“We have a large concentration of people in the beach communities,” Faulconer says, “and a fair number of young folks as well. You always run into more issues when you put a large concentration of people into a small area…. It’s important not to throw all the blame at alcohol. And it’s also important not to be too hasty. Policies need a chance to work before we go restricting people’s freedoms.”

* * *

Jennifer Hill is the district administrator for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), the state regulatory agency that oversees licensing, administration, and compliance for businesses that sell alcohol.

Hill confirms the statistics, which are accurate up to November 2006: indeed, within the 92109 zip code, there are a total of 179 active retail liquor licenses.

Doesn’t Hill think that’s an overconcentration of alcohol in one place?

“Well,” Hill begins, “how we determine overconcentration is per census tract. In 92109, we have eight different census tracts. And the numbers, per census tract, are divided up between off-sale licenses, like liquor stores and convenience stores, and on-sale licenses, like a restaurant or bar. So, census tracts within 92109, yes, are overconcentrated, or unduly concentrated per the statute.”

So we have more licenses than the legislation permits. How does that work?

“We’ve been reviewing this area for a number of years,” Hill says, “and the history with license count is that the whole issue, statutorily, of overconcentration of license, did not become effective until 1995. So the majority of the licenses in the 92109 zip code were issued long before that, some as far back as the 1930s. In fact, in 92109, in 1997, there were 187 licenses. In 2006, there’s 179. So it’s actually gone down.”

But I’ve heard that based on population, in 92109 we should only have 49 liquor licenses. Not 179.

“Well, we can break it down per statute,” Hill says. “There are eight census tracts in 92109. And remember, there’s differences between on-sales and off-sales. The numbers I have are for on-sales only — bars and restaurants. For census tract 76 (in Crown Point), 7 on-sale licenses are authorized, and 31 currently exist. For census tract 77 (also Crown Point), 8 licenses are authorized, and 3 exist. So that’s actually a census tract that’s underconcentrated. For census tract 78 (east of Noyes Street), there are 7 permitted, and 5 exist. Now, in tract 79.01, and that’s Mission, Grand, Garnet — that whole area which is the main focus for tourism — 6 licenses are allowed, and 55 exist. So that, obviously, is unduly concentrated. In 79.03 (east of Fanuel and north of Garnet), 5 permitted, 6 exist. In 79.04 (east of Fanuel and south of Garnet), 6 permitted, 12 exist. In 80.01 (basically north PB), 7 permitted, 14 exist. In subtract 80.02 (also north PB), 3 are permitted, but 0 exist.”

So that adds up to 126 on-sale licenses, with 49 permitted. (The other 53 existing licenses in 92109 are off-sale — CVS, 7-Eleven, Vons, Ralphs, liquor stores, etc.) How can the ABC justify those kinds of statistics?

Hill says, “Especially on Grand and Garnet, the majority of the licenses came into existence before the legislation that had to do with overconcentration. I remember reviewing new licenses on Grand and Garnet probably in, let’s say 1998 or 1997, and not one person objected to them. The police department didn’t. The community didn’t. We have many statutes we investigate by law: crime statistics, the number of residents within 100 feet of a proposed establishment, the number of residents within 500 feet, churches and schools within 600 feet. And all of that exists in different places in PB. But until recently, none of this was an issue. As recently as ten years ago, no one objected to new licenses at all. And if no one objects, and we try to deny a new license just based upon the existence of an overconcentration of licenses, the judges overturn us. It’s happened in the past.”

I’ve heard that the judges are in the pockets of the liquor stores.

“Well, that’s false,” Hill says. “These are independent judges. I would definitely disagree with that.”

Is the ABC available for a price? Could campaign money be filtered in such a way that the ABC could effectively be purchased by a group that wants a license?

“No,” Hill says. “No. Are you asking me if we can be bribed? The ABC is a state regulating agency. We’re a law-enforcing agency. Our director is appointed by the governor, and everyone else is a civil servant. So, no, we are not for sale. Something that a lot of community members don’t understand is this: Our department, being a state agency, is 100 percent regulated by statutes that the legislature put into effect. We don’t come up with our own laws. That’s done through the formal process.”

Okay. So let’s get back to this census tract 79.01. There should be 6 bars there, but 55 exist? Can’t you take away some of those licenses?

Hill says, “The only way for us to revoke an ABC license is, one, there are yearly renewal fees that are due, and they either pay them or they don’t. And once again, our fees are mandated by statute. We can’t just arbitrarily change them. It takes an act of the government.”

It wouldn’t be due cause to look at the situation and say, “There are 55 licenses here and there should only be 6,” and then to take some away?

“We have no statutory authority to do that,” Hill says. “There’s a grandfather clause that exists, from before the statute concerning undue concentration came into effect. And so the only way for us to revoke a license is if an establishment doesn’t pay the renewal fees, or, through administrative disciplinary action. And that’s a progressive discipline situation. So let’s say someone sells to a minor. For the first offense, we do not have the authority to revoke their license. We have a three-strikes law. If the establishment sells alcohol to a minor three times within 36 consecutive months, then after the third violation, the department may seek revocation. Historically, on average, on the third offense, we do go for revocation of the license. Same with selling to an obviously intoxicated patron. We catch them, they go through disciplinary action — pay a fine, serve a suspension, etc. — and then we monitor them more closely. And multiple offenses can result in loss of a license.”

Well, for instance, one of the 55 licenses in 79.01 used to belong to Margarita Rocks. And they closed, so that was an opportunity to knock the number down to 54.

“With Margarita Rocks,” Hill says, “they sold their license to a new entity. It’s called a person transfer. We do not have statutory authority to deny a person transfer if the new person going in meets the qualifications. We do have authority to add conditions, which we did, in this case.”

So the ABC can only enforce and regulate the laws that are laid down by the state legislature.

“Correct,” Hill says. “We try to work closely with local law enforcement, and with the politicians and the communities, but, basically, we are bound by statute, and we’re given our authority through that statute. We don’t have that much discretion when it comes to our statutory authority.”

How is a new liquor license issued? What’s the process?

“Say it’s a brand-new location,” Hill begins. “Someone comes in, and they have to fill out a thorough application package, which includes all of their personal information, because we do a criminal-history run. It includes all of their financial information, because we investigate all of their finances to insure that the money is coming from legal sources and there’s no hidden ownership. We send out notices to the local police department, and we send the police department copies of the applications. We basically say, ‘Here’s the location, here’s what they want, here’s the statistics for this location, do you protest?’ We also send out a mailing to all residents within 100 feet. We send out a notification to all consideration points within 600 feet, which are churches, schools, hospitals, etc. They have to have the zoning approved by the local zoning authority. They also have to put a notice in their window announcing that they’re applying for a license, and they have to publish the same notice three times in the newspaper, and they have to do a mailing to all residents within 500 feet of their location. There’s a lot of notification that goes out to the members of the community and the local law enforcement. So even though we are the legislators, and we make the final decision on whether a license is issued or it isn’t, per statute, we take in the information from the community, zoning, and police department, and they all have a say in the process. And then, if everything looks good to that point, we go out and physically inspect the location. So it’s quite a thorough investigation.”

I understand a new type of problem is this recent phenomenon of restaurants that turn into nightclubs.

“Again,” says Hill, “those establishments have to follow guidelines, and if they do, then there’s nothing in their licensing that says they can’t do that. For example, they have to sell food during normal meal hours, and the sale of alcohol is secondary to the sale of food. After those criteria are met, there’s nothing inherent in the license that prohibits them from turning into a nightclub-type of atmosphere after normal dinner hours. We can put restrictions on new licenses that will help. For instance, we can say, ‘Okay, you’re a restaurant? Great. At least 50 percent of your total gross sales have to be food, no live entertainment or dancing, and you have to close at midnight.’ But with already existing licenses, we can’t go back and put restrictions on. We can only do that through disciplinary action.”

Hill goes on to lay out some of the statistics for me. From 1995 to 2006 in the 92109 zip code, 6 licenses were denied, and 58 were withdrawn. Withdrawals usually occur because licenses are probably going to be denied for one reason or another, and establishments are given the option of pulling out without having to go through the whole process. So, in essence, 64 licenses were denied. And, in that time, the total license count in PB went down by 8, from 187 to 179.

Hill says, “With the atmosphere the way it is within this zip code, I would say it’s very hard to get a new alcohol license, even if you’re in a census tract that’s not overconcentrated, because there’s still a crime-rate issue.”

So everybody knows that this area is posing a problem. But what do we do about it?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hill says. “All we can do is take every application on a case-by-case basis and investigate it per statute. And what we do for enforcement is just work in conjunction with the community and the police department. As I say, we need these locations in compliance. And there’s a lot of good operators down there. A lot of the situation with Pacific Beach, though, is that it’s known statewide as a place to go on the beach and party. It’s huge with the military, it’s huge with college students, and it’s huge in the summer. The population just swells in the summertime. So it’s more of a culture down there, and how do you address the societal culture? Like I say, it’s not a one-prong problem or solution.”

* * *

Ben Nicholls is executive director of Discover Pacific Beach. “We’re the business association for Pacific Beach,” Nicholls tells me. “Every business in the neighborhood — bars, restaurants, hotels, and liquor stores included — is a member of our organization.”

So it’s Free PB on one side, Save PB on the other, and Discover PB is kind of this mediating group in the middle?

“That’s about right, yes,” Nicholls agrees. “Free PB and Save PB are very much agenda-oriented groups, and Discover PB is sort of a catchall business association. We try to tread the middle of the road, often. And sometimes that means we’re more reasonable than most, and sometimes that means we’re caught in the middle.”

What about the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control? Do you think they have PB’s best interests in mind?

“The ABC is an organization that’s constricted by regulation. And it’s very difficult for them to insert any individual choice into what they do. They have processes that they have to follow. They have guidelines, and they can’t stray from those. But I think the Save PB folks think there’s some kind of agenda at the ABC that is created by individuals or some committee or something. But the reality of it is, the ABC is just a regulating agency that doesn’t have the ability to make personal preferences about whether PB is the place to put all the alcohol licenses or not.”

But 179 licenses in a place with fewer than 50,000 people?

“That absolutely is a lot of licenses,” Nicholls agrees. “This is true. And I guess our position is, how are those licenses being used? Are they responsible business owners? Are they irresponsible? Our goal is to try to get the owners who hold those licenses to be responsible.”

How does Nicholls’s group do that?

“There’s a couple of ways,” Nicholls says. “Last year, we instituted a Community Covenant, which is essentially a good-neighbor agreement. It was hosted by our Hospitality Task Force. It has a 13-point plan to keep businesses in line, and it was signed by the owners of 30 bars along the core of the Garnet strip. And the Save PB folks helped us create that document. Now, it was signed by all of the big players — the Typhoon Saloons and whatnot — and many of the smaller ones as well, but there are still some establishments, like Cabo Cantina, which are quite happy to sell drinks half-off and have happy-hour dollar beers. There are bars that aren’t participating, and we encourage them to participate.”

Nicholls also mentions that the Hospitality Task Force has done other “feel-good things,” like doubling the number of trash cans along Garnet Avenue.

What are some other businesses that refuse to get on board with the Community Covenant?

“Daddio’s is one,” Nicholls says. “It’s a restaurant that transforms itself into a nightclub under the radar. The Bareback Grill didn’t sign on. They do dollar drinks, which is about volume instead of being about quality. And the Bareback has a great location and a great environment. They have great burgers. I think people will pay $2.50 for a beer there. But it’s crazy to sell beer for less than you have to pay to get a cup of coffee or even a bottle of water. It’s just irresponsible.”

Does the Community Covenant take noise into account?

“It does,” Nicholls says. “We encourage the members to use sound meters and to insulate their businesses against noise. One good example of this is at a new bar which has joined our task force. It’s called Bar West. They’re located at the old Margarita Rocks location on Hornblend. And when the owner was putting together his concept, he called us, and he called the folks at Save PB as well, to come and make suggestions about how to make his bar a better and more accommodating bar. So he’s installed sound baffles and things like that in the club, so the condos across the street aren’t as impacted.”

There’s really a unique situation along Garnet, with so many bars and businesses located less than a block from so many residences.

“That is the real challenge,” Nicholls says. “PB is a 24-hour neighborhood. It’s as busy at midnight as it is at midday. Even more so. And you have to think about it like it’s another downtown. It’s just like the Gaslamp. The challenge is that we’re all jammed in with one another, residences and businesses, and that creates a really exciting and dynamic neighborhood that people love to come to. PB is full of people all the time. But it really is a challenge that we’re struggling through.”

So the common standards for a responsible bar would include provisions for noise, trash, pricing, and what else?

“Security,” Nicholls says. “We’re suggesting higher security standards. Particular ratios of security guards to patrons, and things like that. And how to defuse a situation without just throwing it out onto the street and making it someone else’s problem. That’s very important. Also, how to recognize when someone’s had enough and to stop serving them. And also, of course, not serving to anyone who’s underage. But, really, one of the biggest things we’ve done is to set aside an assessment district to provide funds for additional police officers to patrol the residential areas adjacent to the bars.”

Then Nicholls makes an interesting point.

“Despite what you might think, the vast majority of alcohol sold in PB doesn’t come from the bars. It comes from the liquor stores and the supermarkets. I think there are 20 liquor stores in the neighborhood, and also quite a few supermarkets, like Vons. And the statistics say that when you see someone stumbling drunk down the boardwalk, that person came from a retail market.”

What can you do to regulate the responsible sale of alcohol through a supermarket?

“It’s tough,” Nicholls acknowledges. “These markets aren’t really a part of the community, in a manner of speaking. The bars and the residents came up with the Community Covenant, but I would like to see these independent grocers and the big chains come together to be more responsible businesses as well. For example, every time you buy a case of beer, you get a flier in the bag that tells you the rules for drinking on the beach. Or maybe they set aside some money so that we can put signs on the beach that advertise the rules or advertise how to be a responsible beach drinker. Because the reality of drinking on the beach is, if it continues to be abused, it’s going to go away. And the real losers there will be the supermarkets.”

I ask Nicholls whether he has any parting thoughts on the subject.

“We have roughly the same number of liquor licenses in PB that we had ten years ago,” Nicholls says. “But the question is, are the operators, now, better than the ones we had back then? And everyone that I’ve asked has said ‘yes.’ We have more responsible operators. And so, to me, that says, well, the strategy of replacing irresponsible operators with responsible ones is working. We’re not decreasing the number of licenses, but the quality of businesses is getting better.”

* * *

I decide to talk to some representatives from bars that won’t sign Discover PB’s Community Covenant. Are they just being irresponsible? Don’t they care about the neighborhood that sustains them? Or do they have good reasons for not signing on?

“I don’t even know about that,” Daddio, the owner (and he says that Daddio is his name) tells me, surprisingly. “This is new to me. You’re coming at me from outer space right now on that one. Community Covenant?”

I explain this document and the vision behind it.

“Well, that sounds like a good thing,” he says, and he sounds genuine. “Except, we’ve got a special to buy one beer and get one free. It’s a war out here to survive. I’m just trying to help the public by giving them a good deal. And people don’t get fall-down drunk here. We’ve never had any issues with that. But if there’s a group that doesn’t want us to offer specials like that, then I think we should stop. But, like I say, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Daddio’s has been in Pacific Beach for three years. “My daughter-in-law and my son are the ones who usually handle all this stuff,” Daddio tells me. “But they took off to Texas for vacation, so here I am.”

I ask him whether he’ll put his foot down regarding compliance with the Community Covenant and discontinue the two-for-one specials.

“I’ll discuss it with them,” he says. “And whatever’s fair, I’ll do. No matter what.”

Next, I head over to Cabo Cantina.

General manager Geoffrey Harris tells me that he feels Cabo Cantina has been singled out by the Community Covenant.

“I’m a firm believer in the Covenant,” Harris says. “I think the Covenant works. I think it’s a good thing for the community to have. But I felt that the one thing they specifically targeted was the two-for-one drinks. And we do have a two-for-one special, but it’s geared around our prices being higher than most anyone else’s in the area. And it’s also just from 4:00-8:00 p.m., a happy-hour special, whereas other bars along the beach do specials throughout the day, throughout the night, whenever.”

I tell Harris that the issue, as I understand it, is that drinks become too cheap, so people can get drunk for basically nothing.

“But the absolute cheapest drink you can get at Cabo Cantina breaks down to $2.50,” Harris says. “Even with our two-for-one, the lowest price you can pay for an individual beer between 4:00 and 8:00 is $2.50. So it’s a perception thing. We do it as an advertising tool, but it doesn’t cause an overservice issue. That’s not what we’re about.”

Harris tells me that Cabo Cantina has never been cited for underage service or overservice or overcapacity. They were cited for noise violations when they first opened, but never since. “And we even have minimal fights here,” he says, “because our happy hour is 4:00-8:00, and after that, like I say, our prices are a little higher than the immediate places around us.”

Cabo Cantina has been in PB for a year and a half. But Harris has been running bars in the neighborhood for over 14 years. He tells me that certain people have a misperception about the place, and they’re trying to turn it into something it’s not.

“PB isn’t La Jolla, and it isn’t stuck in the 1950s,” he says. “It’s a young-family- or young-single-person-oriented community. A lot of transplants come here from other places to enjoy the beach and the singles’ lifestyle. It’s a community for someone who has an active social life. And that’s what PB’s all about.”

* * *

Next, I have a word with Captain Boyd Long, of the Northern Division of the San Diego Police Department. Captain Long grew up in San Diego, and he’s been a police officer for more than 22 years. Northern Division runs roughly from the 8 freeway up to Del Mar and east to the 15 and includes the beach communities of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla.

“In a nutshell,” Captain Long tells me, “the beach community has always had an issue involving alcohol. And they did have some restrictions on alcohol put in place back in about 1990 or ’91, when we came to the conclusion that we were going to limit the number of hours that you could drink alcohol on the beach. And the limit was, they could consume alcohol on the sand between the hours of noon and 8:00 p.m. And I think today we have almost everyone in the county educated that that is the case. Because very few violations occur before or after hours, except on days of special events, like Memorial Day or Labor Day or the Fourth of July.”

What’s the root of the issue now, in 2007?

Captain Long thinks a moment. “Probably the growing problem for Pacific Beach especially has been the nightlife. The entertainment area that has occurred and is occurring along Garnet. I think it’s the consensus of the community that they’d like to see the ABC take a stricter approach to allowing licenses to be granted in this particular area.”

But the ABC tells me that they’re doing what they can, because it comes down to policies and legislations. Does Captain Long think we should change our policies in the beach area?

“I’m here to enforce policy,” Captain Long says, “not to develop it. I don’t think most people would want the police department developing policy. Policy should be developed by community members working closely with their elected officials, taking statistical input from the police department. And if the policy is to ban alcohol on the beach, then I’ll work to ban alcohol on the beach. And if the policy is to allow drinking between certain hours, then it’s my job to see to it that that gets enforced.”

Doesn’t Captain Long believe there’s a problem? Should we ban alcohol at the beach and stop giving liquor licenses and, basically, shut the whole area down?

“I want to be perfectly clear about this,” Captain Long says authoritatively, “and I’ve said it before. If we take the alcohol and remove it from the beach, it is my belief and my professional opinion that it will increase the number of people who attend house parties along the beach, and it’s going to increase the number of people in the bars. Therefore, it will take some of the problem that we see on the beach, which doesn’t even compare with the problems we already see inland, and it’s going to make those problems worse.”

I’ve heard this argument before, that banning alcohol on the sand may just spread the problem back up into the community. At least on the beach, the police have an ideal enforcement environment: they can approach whomever they want, without the need of a complaint or warrant.

“What’s going on in PB is unprecedented anywhere else in the city,” Captain Long says. “We have nightclubs mingled in so closely with a residential area. You could go one block, or even half a block, in either direction from the main entertainment strip in PB, and you can find residential housing. That causes a unique problem. For instance, if one of these clubs is playing loud music, and it disturbs a neighbor, then they can file a complaint. And I think that’s why so many people are looking at this issue. It is a huge issue.”

Are there any aspects of the situation that we need to look at more closely?

“We likely have a bathroom concern out on the beach,” Captain Long acknowledges. “You know, Pacific Beach itself has a population of about 42,000 people. On any single day, that number is probably doubled. Now, you take your visitorship that just hits the sand on a holiday, and we might have, on the sand alone, maybe 100,000 people, or maybe a lot more. Staggering numbers. And we have eight sets of public toilets. Eight. At the foot of Grand, at the foot of PB Drive, at the foot of Mission Bay Drive, at the very south lot of West Mission Bay at Ventura Cove, at the edge of the south lot of Belmont, at the south jetty, on Ventura Cove, and at Bonita Cove. But between Pacific Beach Drive and Ventura, for instance, there are no public restrooms. Which can be very problematic for us. It’s about three quarters of a mile between those restrooms.”

It turns out that the Beach and Alcohol Task Force has begun to address this problem as well, calling, in many areas, for portable toilets.

Does Captain Long think that, in general, we’re doing a good job of keeping things under control? I mention, in particular, that the numbers for crime statistics seem very high.

“Well, they are high numbers,” Captain Long says, “but that’s partially a reflection of the fact that we have a lot more enforcement there. We have more checkpoints in the beach area than anywhere else, and we do saturation patrols.”

Captain Long tells me that, at any given time, 30 police officers from Northern Division could be patrolling the beach area. I ask him whether he thinks that’s enough or whether he feels as if the police are out there all alone sometimes.

“I have to say that the business owners in the beach area are really trying,” Captain Long says. “A lot of these owners want to make the beach a better place. And they want to be more responsible. And I really want to reiterate this: they are trying to be responsible. And they’re partnering with us to make Garnet Avenue a nice place for people to come. Among other things, they’re actually putting together funding to augment the police presence with off-duty officers. It’s better for their business, and they get a better clientele by doing that.”

So where is all this going to take us? What does Captain Long foresee?

“I think we have to keep finding solutions on a problem-by-problem basis. We can’t just change the whole way of life in the beach area. That’s not going to happen. And I’m not sure that it should happen. We have to keep looking at the situations that arise and then deal with them.”

By Geoff Bouvier
San Diego Reader

Alcohol Culture in PB

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