No violations by new SLO bars, city report finds

Lines into bars on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Lines into bars on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Downtown San Luis Obispo bars and restaurants have responded well to new rules the city set after reviewing its enforcement policies for alcohol outlets, funding a study that linked alcohol establishments to late-night crime, passing regulations that prevent new restaurants from “morphing” into nightclubs and controlling noise at existing businesses, a city report found.

But a downtown advocacy group has already weighed in, saying the new regulations and enforcement don’t go far enough.

At the Nov. 3 council meeting, several members of the group Save Our Downtown expressed their ongoing concerns about businesses that sell alcohol downtown. In response, council members asked Community Development Director Michael Codron to compile an update on the effectiveness of regulations put into place in 2012 to present at a later meeting.

In his Dec. 10 memo, Codron identifies 57 businesses within the boundaries of the Downtown Association that serve alcohol for on-site consumption as of June 30, 2015. Of those 57 businesses, 25 serve alcohol after 11 p.m. and 13 are licensed to provide live music, according to the report.

In 2012, the city approved new regulations that requires new restaurants that want to serve alcohol after 11 p.m. to obtain an administrative permit that allows the city to add special conditions. The city also restricted restaurants from “morphing” into bars or nightclubs by requiring food service, and it established new standards for existing businesses, what the city calls “deemed-approved provisions.”

In order to meet the new requirements, new restaurants must offer full food service during all hours of operation, and chairs and tables are not allowed to be rearranged following peak restaurant hours.

Each use permit now includes the condition that upon substantiation of a written complaint, including alleged violations of the permits, the permit will be reviewed at a public hearing. The permit could be revoked, or conditions could be added, modified or deleted.

Businesses existing when the new regulations took effect are subject to a range of complaint and criminal activity-driven requirements. Since June 2012, no existing, or “deemed-approved,” business has been found in violation of the new rules.

The city’s new bar and restaurant inspection program, in which businesses are examined at least three times annually, has been effective, according to Codron’s report, and city staff has identified building safety concerns and one use permit violation that has since been corrected.

Noise continues to be a problem between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., the report found, identifying four businesses: Marston’s Bar & Grill, Black Sheep Bar & Grill, McCarthy’s Irish Pub and SLO Brew.

Since the new regulations, no new bar or tavern where meals are not served has opened within the Downtown Association’s boundaries, according to the report, though five beer licenses have been issued for establishments that serve food (Pluto’s Restaurant and Downtown Centre Cinemas); one license for beer, wine and spirits in a restaurant (Granada Hotel) and two for small beer manufacturers or “brew pubs” (soon-to-open Barrelhouse Co. Taproom and Libertine Brewing Co.).

Despite the city’s findings, the residents activist group, Save Our Downtown, wrote in a Dec. 15 letter to the City Council that the city report dismissed a recent spike in reported violent crime and found fault with its record of enforcing the new regulations.

“The enforcement mechanisms against bars are obviously not strict enough if there has been no violation of any new Use Permit or alcohol outlet between June 19, 2012, through 2015,” according to the letter.

The group pointed out that police had conditionally protested 12 to 20 licenses every year, according to the report.

“Yet none of these licenses have been pulled,” according to the letter.

The group also linked the increase of “bars” from 49 in 2012 to 57 in 2015 to an increase in crime, namely sexual assaults, “which normally occur in bedrooms … not in streets,” they wrote.

“… The City should be held morally, if not legally, responsible for aiding and abetting criminal activity related to the continued proliferation and increasing concentration of alcohol outlets in our Downtown Core,” according to the letter.

The city has experienced a significant increase in violent crime since 2012, according to California Department of Justice data submitted by the city. The number of recorded aggravated assaults, for example, jumped to 168 in 2014 from 79 in 2012. Reported rapes more than doubled in the same period, to 44 from 20, more than any year in the past decade and almost three times the rate for cities of similar size. The data is citywide.

In the city report, staff wrote that because of new definitions of certain crimes, established by the FBI, and new methods used by local agencies in reporting crime data, 2014 data should not be compared with city data for previous years.

Last year, the FBI revised its definition of rape to include more types of physical crimes and now requests that local agencies report their number of aggravated assaults based on number of victims rather than number of incidents, according to the report.

But reports of lower-level crimes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., including vandalism, urinating in public and misdemeanor assault, have dropped. The city attributed an increase in cases of open alcoholic containers and public drunkenness, in part, to increased enforcement.

City staff also pointed out that other categories of violent crime have remained below average over the past three years and property crimes have been in decline since 2012, with the city last year reaching its lowest level since 1985.