Is too much liquor flowing in downtown San Luis Obispo?
Save Our Downtown — a group that promotes the livability, economic success and historic character of downtown — says yes. Some members even made “No More Bars” signs they wore to a recent City Council meeting.
Yet their comments suggest it’s not so much bars they worry about; it’s drunken, obnoxious — and sometimes criminal — behavior they oppose.
So do we.
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But we don’t believe a blanket moratorium on all new businesses serving alcohol in the downtown — something Save Our Downtown has requested — is the answer.
Further, we support the City Council’s recent decision to allow Discovery San Luis Obispo, a bowling alley that will also serve food and alcohol, to open inside the building at Chorro and Marsh streets that most recently housed Sports Authority, and before that was home to Rileys department store.
Save Our Downtown, which asked the council to deny the project, would rather see a retailer — perhaps a gallery of shops — occupy the building. It’s described Discovery as a “mega bar” that will contribute to making downtown San Luis Obispo a permanent “party place.”
We aren’t denying that overconsumption of alcohol continues to cause problems in downtown SLO.
We are disappointed that efforts to resolve those issues — such as requirements for new restaurants that “morph” into bars — haven’t made more of a difference.
Still, we believe there are less extreme ways to deal with the problem than to dictate which businesses can or cannot open downtown, which is essentially what Save Our Downtown is suggesting.
That’s not saving the downtown.
It’s stifling it.
Downtowns evolve — it’s happening in many places.
Like it or not, the number of independently owned businesses is dwindling, while the number of national chains — the Apple Stores and Pottery Barns, the Abercrombies and Gaps and Banana Republics — are increasing. So are downtown dining and entertainment venues. L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles is a prime example. (And no, we aren’t suggesting that SLO emulate L.A. Live — we merely point to it as an example of a trend.)
So as much as we might have liked another Rileys-type department store to occupy the landmark Chorro Street building, that proposal was not on the table; Discovery San Luis Obispo was.
We believe it deserves a chance.
We also believe it’s far better to welcome a bowling alley to the downtown than to have the Rileys building sit empty for another three or four years.
We look to Discovery SLO to contribute to the vibrancy of the downtown and to make an effort to market itself to all demographics.
If it winds up contributing to drunken brawls and other bad behavior, it will be time for the City Council to step in and strengthen its ordinances dealing with downtown liquor sales.
A WORD ABOUT ABC STATISTICS
There already is a limit on the number of liquor establishments allowed in the county. Set by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control, the limit is based on county population. Because San Luis Obispo County has been growing slowly, it has not been allocated additional licenses.
That’s been a sore point with some businesses and has been partially blamed for the demise of at least one restaurant, Colby Jack’s in Atascadero.
In response to those concerns, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian sponsored legislation in 2013 that allowed an additional five on-sale liquor licenses (meaning alcohol has to be consumed on the premises) for large restaurants in San Luis Obispo County. As Achadjian put it back then, “People want to come, enjoy the scenery, go to restaurants and have a drink while they are there.”
The assemblyman also criticized the current method of allocating licenses as outdated because it doesn’t consider the needs of counties such as San Luis Obispo that host large numbers of tourists.
We also believe the ABC’s current method of calculating whether a particular community is oversaturated needs to be more realistic.
According to figures published in a recent issue of The Tribune, virtually every city center in the county — with the exception of Grover Beach — has an over-concentration of alcohol establishments.
Downtown Paso Robles, for example, is recommended for 17 licenses. It has 76. Downtown San Luis Obispo is recommended for only eight licenses, and it has 66. The vast majority — 54 — are held by restaurants, several of which serve only beer and wine.
We, too, are concerned about oversaturation, but basing recommendations on the local population fails to recognize that some communities have a big influx of visitors.
It’s time to overhaul the system to better reflect reality.