Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: A downtown attractive to all

Stop me if you’ve heard this one — and you probably have, if you’re a fan of “A Prairie Home Companion” — A guy walks into a bar, orders his beer and notices that guy next to him has a mangy-looking mutt at his feet. He asks his fellow barfly, “So, does your dog bite?”

“No,” the fellow replies. Thus reassured, the man reaches down to pet the mutt and gets promptly and decisively bitten. “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!”

he complains. “He doesn’t,” says the barfly. “That’s not my dog.”

Recently, from my seat on the SLO City Council, I’ve been hearing a lot of similar excuses, and for the most part, they’re just as lame as that joke. Do we have a problem with too many alcohol outlets ... or, by implication, too many alcohol consumers in our downtown? (Or too much alcohol being served?)

It depends on your perspective — on whether you’re the owner of the dog or the guy who gets bitten.

There’s ample evidence that the concentration of bars and restaurants in SLO has created some problems for law enforcement. The city recently retained a professional, Dr. Fried Wittman of CLEW Associates, who has studied alcohol- and drug-related crime problems in many other communities throughout the country. When this study was presented at a study session of the City Council last month, it created a small firestorm. The owners and employees of several downtown bars and restaurants were in attendance, and many of them had harsh words for the council, our consultant and for his work product.

Dr. Wittman’s study reported one startling conclusion: San Luis Obispo has one of the highest concentrations of on-sale liquor licensees in California (essentially bars, restaurants, and brew pubs) — right up there with San Francisco and Newport Beach.

Policing bars

The study also found that about one quarter of all “police events” in 2008 — occasions where police were called in, other than traffic stops — involved alcohol or drugs. Moreover, only 10 on-sale licensees generated about 70 percent of all “AOD” (alcohol or drug) police events in San Luis Obispo; most of these locations (though not all) are in the downtown.

At our meeting last month, the council also heard from downtown retailer­s, office workers and residents who shared their stories of “hammered” rowdies in the downtown bars and restaurants. They complained that drunken revelers often relieve themselves on storefronts and in alleys, and that sidewalks on the “morning after” require special cleaning to remove the “biohazards” that result.

I’m not a teetotaler, but I recoil at the prospect of shop owners having to clean up such a mess. I’d like to believe that this is definitely “not my dog,” but I’d be mistaken: It is an issue for our council, and we’re taking it on. As The Tribune pointed out in its editorial on Nov. 1, we must act in concert with the property owners, merchants and with all of those who know and love our downtown.

The bar and restaurant owners claim — correctly — that the success of the “night life” downtown actually fulfills one goal of the city’s General Plan. They also point out that they have developed a generally good relationship with our police officers, and neither we nor they would expect them to hesitate to call our officers when their skills are needed to deal with an unruly patron.

Need for variety

We all want our downtown to offer a great mix of popular places to eat and drink; but it also serves a larger purpose. It’s the very heart and soul of our city, and its many specialty shops and daytime restaurants serve a wide variety of residents and visitors, not just our nocturnal guests.

Dr. Wittman also explained that the concept of a “nighttime entertainment district” depends on maintaining a variety of diversion options: theaters, movie houses, music venues and restaurants that serve a variety of customers and tastes.

Alcohol service alone cannot make for a successful downtown, but it can be part of a healthy mix.

To me, that is the crux of the argument: We want a downtown that continues to attract all of us. Ever since the Mission days, downtown “establishments” have served cowboys, students, old-timers and young adults who enjoy the adventure of a night on the town. As a councilman, I don’t want that to change, but I want to make sure that there will continue to be a place for families, for theater-goers, for diners, for office workers and for shop owners and their customers. Soon, there will also be significantly more people sleeping downtown, with three proposed specialty hotels as well as dozens of new condominiums in the pipeline.

In our ongoing process to improve the downtown, we have some preliminary recommendations from our consultant and our police chief, and we have some positive suggestions from the downtown restaurant and bar owners. We need to make sure that all stakeholders are involved in the conversation that is now starting.

By the end of the process, I’m hoping that we’ll have a set of regulations, policies and physical improvements that make the downtown a better place for everyone in SLO. You’re invited to participate, if you care about this city and our unique downtown. This is not the time for anyone to say, “That’s not my dog.”

John Ashbaugh is a San Luis Obispo City Council member.