Visit downtown San Luis Obispo on a weekend night and you’re almost certain to see long lines of bar-goers outside some of the watering holes lining Higuera Street and its offshoots.
San Luis Obispo’s bustling downtown has 66 restaurants, bars and breweries where patrons can grab a drink, according to the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. There are an additional 14 licenses for off-sale locations (places that sell alcohol for off-site consumption), including convenience and grocery stores and wine retailers like Cal Poly Downtown, which sells student-produced wines.
The downtown area is considered over-concentrated by the ABC for both on- and off-sale licenses. The area, outlined in a U.S. Census tract map, covers a swath of downtown that’s about a mile-long and nearly a mile-wide.
This concerns some residents, particularly members of grass-roots group Save Our Downtown, which recently appealed a proposed bowling alley on Chorro Street that would offer a restaurant, concert venue and alcohol service until midnight.
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The appeal, which the San Luis Obispo City Council will consider Tuesday, has raised familiar concerns about the number of alcohol outlets in the downtown core.
In past years, the city has taken steps to try to lower alcohol-related crime downtown. Bar and restaurant owners said increased communication with police helps them address any problems more quickly.
But Save Our Downtown members maintain that a high concentration of alcohol establishments results in higher crime rates and erodes the health, safety and welfare of residents and visitors.
“San Luis Obispo downtown already has an over-concentration of bars, with or without restaurants,” Save Our Downtown members James Lopes and Sandra Lakeman wrote to the council on Aug. 31.
The ABC considers the downtown area to be in a state of “undue concentration” because the ratio of on- and off-sale licenses to the population in the downtown census tract — which is mostly businesses, with fewer than 3,600 residents — exceeds the ratio of on-sale retail licenses to the population in San Luis Obispo County.
The county ratio is one on-sale license per 405 people, according to the ABC. By this standard, only eight on-sale licenses would be authorized downtown.
But this situation isn’t unique to San Luis Obispo. For example, state data shows that downtown Paso Robles and Pismo Beach also have an undue concentration of liquor licenses.
In Paso Robles, the downtown tract has 76 on-sale licenses although only 17 would be authorized under the ratio of licenses to countywide population.
Pismo Beach has 53 on-sale licenses in its downtown tract that includes most of Shell Beach, although only eight would be authorized using the countywide ratio.
“There are a number of communities where there is undue concentration,” ABC spokesman John Carr said. “When you think about it, these communities might want to situate bars and restaurants in a business district … so you might have a higher concentration of those types of businesses.”
Calling for a moratorium
Additional licenses can be approved if a business shows that public convenience or necessity would be served.
Of the 66 active on-sale licenses in downtown San Luis Obispo, 54 were granted to restaurants. Only the ABC, not the city, requires restaurants to prove public convenience or necessity if the license is new or transferred from another census tract.
The city requires a business to show a public necessity or convenience to obtain a new license for a bar or tavern — and it would likely be difficult to do, said Doug Davidson, the city’s deputy director of development review.
But some Save Our Downtown members believe restaurants have been given a pass even though most also serve alcohol. They point to a 2012 survey the city conducted that found 59 percent of 1,917 respondents wanted fewer bars downtown.
“Restaurants after about 10 p.m. stop being restaurants and start being bars,” said Allan Cooper, the organization’s secretary.
The group continues to advocate for a moratorium on new businesses that serve alcohol, including restaurants.
The City Council in 2013 considered the idea but unanimously agreed not to pursue it, with former Councilwoman Kathy Smith stating at the time: “It’s not right for us to be telling property owners how to use their properties.”
At that same meeting, Councilman John Ashbaugh commended downtown business owners who strategized and implemented efforts to combat problems.
“There has been an honest effort by professional, well-organized and sincere business owners,” he said.
It wasn’t a surprise that Save Our Downtown appealedthe city Planning Commission’s July 22 approval of Discovery San Luis Obispo
, a 13-lane bowling alley, with late-night alcohol service in 25,210 square feet at 1144 Chorro St.
Concerns range from the number of bars inside the facility to noise and parking impacts.
But the plan has also garnered support from other business owners and residents, some of whom wrote to the City Council that bowling could draw more families as well as tourists and residents who might not frequent downtown.
The property owner of the Wineman Hotel and six other tenants within the hotel also signed a letter in support of the project.
“Furthermore, our downtown district needs a daytime activity, such as the proposed bowling alley, that appeals to people looking for something to do other than shopping and eating,” wrote Gary Stevenson, property manager of the Wineman. “Having been born and raised in San Luis Obispo, I have not been more excited for a new use downtown.”
After Save Our Downtown appealed the project, Jeremy Pemberton, managing partner of Discovery San Luis Obispo, filed his own appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision to require that the venue close at midnight.
“Discovery would be the ONLY establishment in the downtown corridor where patrons can enjoy high-quality food and alternative activities in comparison to other establishments that serve until 2 a.m.,” he wrote.
Pemberton has described Discovery SLO as a community event center that could draw all types of patrons: children’s birthday parties, Rotary clubs and people who want to rent the concert space as a banquet hall.
But among some local bar owners and residents, there’s a sense that Discovery SLO is trying to market the bowling alley project as a family friendly venue, even though alcohol would be available throughout the facility.
The property would have one alcohol license, but plans show five bars inside.
This is not in the spirit of rules the council approved in 2012 to give the city more supervision of businesses that “morph" from restaurants into nightclubs or bars, Lopes and Lakeman wrote.
Those rules required new restaurants that want to serve alcohol after 11 p.m. to get an administrative use permit, which allows the city to apply conditions such as requiring food service when alcohol is served.
The regulations stemmed from a 2009 study that assessed the number of police responses in the city and showed a disproportionate number of incidents at or near downtown alcohol establishments.
In 2008, according to the study, 23 percent of all police events in the city involved alcohol. About 65 percent of arrests in the downtown area were alcohol-related.
In response, in 2011 a group of bar and restaurant owners formed the Safe Nightlife Association, which started late-night transportation and downtown cleanup services and required all servers to be trained in safe-serving practices. (The group is now the Food, Beverage & Services Committee under the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association.)
More recently, the city’s land use and circulation elements update includes a policy that the city shall work with downtown businesses, residents, the Chamber of Commerce and others to manage impacts from downtown drinking establishments.
Has it worked?
The question remains: Are these efforts making a difference?
Over the past five years, incidents involving urinating in public, vandalism and misdemeanor and felony assaults have dropped slightly, according to San Luis Obispo police.
But incidents involving open containers and being drunk in public have remained flat or increased slightly during that period.
The records show 3,979 incidents over five years within a 1,000-foot radius from 858 Higuera St. in the heart of downtown. Of those, 56 percent took place between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Police Capt. Chris Staley attributed at least some of the positive change to more proactive enforcement by the department’s bike team downtown.
Efforts by downtown business owners have also played a role.
“Our urinating-in-public numbers have gone down because they’ve put toilets out during bigger events,” Staley said. “They’re paying a little more attention to their clients and not serving people who are too intoxicated.”
Overall, he said there has been better communication and coordination with downtown business owners in the past few years.
Bill Hales, who co-owns Bull’s Tavern, Creeky Tiki and McCarthy’s Irish Pub, among other bars and eateries, agreed that communication between bar owners and the city has improved. But he said he doesn’t think there was much of a problem downtown to begin with.
“The police never indicated that it was a big problem,” he said. “The city has designated this (downtown) as the entertainment zone — this is really the only place these businesses can be.”
Cooper, of Save Our Downtown, maintains that crime remains at unacceptable levels downtown and the city should focus on limiting the number of alcohol outlets.
“We’re not opposed to fun,” he said. “We’re opposed to the kind of behavior that results from binge drinking downtown. We’re concerned about crime more than anything. All of that happens in the neighborhoods after they’ve left the bars.”
Alcohol licenses compared
The number of on-sale alcohol licenses in the core downtown areas of most cities in San Luis Obispo County exceeds the number of licenses authorized for those areas, according to data provided by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
ABC considers areas to be in a state of “undue concentration” if the ratio of licenses to the population in a specific census tract exceeds the ratio of on-sale retail licenses to population in the county.
The county ratio is one on-sale license per 405 people. Using this ratio, the department authorizes a certain number of licenses in each census tracts in each city (the census tract areas come from the U.S. Census Bureau).
|City||No. on-sale licenses authorized by ABC in the downtown census tract||No. of active on-sale licenses in the downtown tract|
|San Luis Obispo||8||66|