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It's a Thursday night, and the bars along J Street are already hopping.
Even from the park across the street, you can hear people partying, glasses clinking and music pounding – the sounds of money being made in midtown Sacramento.
Nightlife districts help make cities vibrant and generate jobs and taxes.
But those payoffs shouldn't come at the expense of quality of life for residents.
That sensitive balance is teetering in midtown. If it gets too off-kilter, it could tarnish or even ruin one of Sacramento's most important successes.
There are more than 100 bars and restaurants with alcohol licenses in midtown – nearly 40 just in the area bounded by 21st, H and R streets and Alhambra Boulevard, home to about 5,500 people. In midtown, there are also two dozen stores that sell booze to take home.
Midtown has become a regional partying destination, and not just on Second Saturdays. It's one reason why Sacramento has the highest rate of deaths and injuries in alcohol-related crashes of any big city in California, as well as one of the highest rates of DUI arrests.
Matt Piner has seen the transformation of midtown up close as a resident for 23 years, the past seven as chairman of the Midtown Neighborhood Association. He also sees both sides of that balance that is at risk.
Like plenty of residents, he loves being able to walk to restaurants, and has learned to live with annoyances, like being awakened by late-night revelers. He also understands the frustrations of those who believe problems have spun out of control.
"They feel like they have to yell and scream pretty loud to get people to hear them," says Piner, an architect.
The most outspoken activists are increasingly angry not only at bar owners, but at City Hall and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They say that the city is mostly interested in quick tax revenue, and that ABC isn't policing bars tightly enough.
Their latest targets are along J Street between 27th and 28th, near the parking lot where an innocent bystander was shot to death in August.
Some nearby residents complain about noise and other issues at Barwest, which opened last year. It has had one ABC violation, agreeing in February to pay a $3,000 fine for selling to a minor. But residents' influence is limited, since Barwest's alcohol license isn't up for renewal until next July.
They could have more say about Harlow's, whose new owners are seeking to transfer its license. Under the prior owners, the nightclub was fined $3,000 for underage drinking.
City police want a private security guard to patrol near Harlow's on Thursday through Saturday nights. Residents are seeking more conditions, including stopping alcohol sales at 11 p.m., even on weekends, and requiring the owners to pay for two city police officers to patrol residential areas within six blocks. (The owners of Harlow's and Barwest did not respond to requests for comment.)
Karen Jacques, one of those who signed the protest against the Harlow's license, is heartbroken by what has happened to midtown. She has lived there for 25 years but says she doesn't feel safe venturing out after 10 p.m. because she doesn't want to run into bands of rowdy bar-hoppers.
Dale Kooyman, another activist, says other cities do a much better job protecting neighborhoods from bars' negative impact. Vito Sgromo says he fears that midtown is already losing residents and starting to decay.
They mostly blame City Hall for not considering the long-term costs of so many alcohol outlets so close to houses and apartments. "The city has been unwilling to deal with this issue," Jacques says.
Too rowdy for some residents
ABC is under fire from some property owners near Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co., which plans to open next weekend in the former home of the Hangar 17 sports bar at 17th and S streets. While Hangar 17 wasn't cited by the ABC in six years before closing last year, the property owners complain about noise, parking problems and public drunkenness.
Bock Lee, who for more than four decades has owned a four-plex nearby, says he lost half his tenants because of the sports bar. With the new license pending, Lee and others are pressing their concerns again. But they're not optimistic, saying that ABC is stacked against them.
"I don't know if they're going to listen," says Lee, a retired grocery store worker who relies on the rent plus Social Security to pay his bills. "They didn't listen before."
ABC says the new license would have 15 operating conditions. For instance, outdoor patios that have been a sore point with neighbors will have to close by 10 p.m. in the front and midnight in the back. There are also restrictions on noise and loitering.
The owners of Hook & Ladder, who also own the Golden Bear pub in midtown, pledge to be good neighbors.
"It's our livelihood," says co-owner Kimio Bazett, who lives in midtown and sits on the Midtown Business Association board. "We put our future and families on the line. We're not going to mess that up."
Some property owners, however, say that promises from proprietors are often empty and that conditions on licenses are pointless because ABC doesn't enforce them.
The agency, created in 1955 by an amendment to the state constitution, has a delicate balancing act of its own. Its mission is to protect public welfare and morals – but also to foster the state's economic well-being.
While the state's complex alcohol laws discourage allowing alcohol outlets too close to churches, hospitals and schools, ABC has lots of leeway.
Every year, the agency issues thousands of alcohol sales licenses and tens of thousands of automatic renewals. License fees, $53 million in 2011-12, fund nearly all its budget.
It denies only a handful of applications, records show. That's partly because conditions – such as how late a bar can stay open or how loud it can be – are often added to settle protests by the department, cities or residents. That also doesn't count applications that are withdrawn, more than 1,000 this year.
License suspensions and revocations are also relatively unusual. If suspensions are for 15 days or less, which includes most first violations, licensees can stay open and instead pay a fine equal to half the estimated alcohol sales during the suspension period.
With only about 130 ABC agents in the field trying to monitor 85,000 outlets statewide, they respond mostly to complaints and rarely do random checks.
"The department is spread thin, that's for sure," says Chris Albrecht, the ABC assistant director who oversees Northern California. With more personnel, the department could do more to protect neighborhoods, he told me.
Is ABC doing its job?
After the 1992 Los Angeles riots focused attention on "undue concentrations" of liquor stores that were blamed for crime and blight, the Legislature gave cities more power to restrict them. Many cities have so many that they are under a moratorium for new licenses to sell beer, wine or hard liquor to take home.
Sacramento is among them, so such licenses can only be transferred. The city is not under a moratorium for new licenses for bars and restaurants.
Cities can file objections based on whether bars would create a public nuisance, cause crime, or would be in an area with too many licenses already.
"We take such a protest very seriously," Albrecht says.
While ABC has guidelines, based on population, of how many alcohol outlets should be in a particular area, there are several ways around those limits.
A major one is if ABC determines that a bar or restaurant would serve "public convenience or necessity." For instance, an eatery can claim it will serve a dish that isn't available in the neighborhood. Because the law isn't very specific about what "public convenience or necessity" means, and because the department has the burden to prove otherwise, it's rare that ABC denies a permit under this provision.
In Sacramento, restaurants with alcohol licenses, unlike bars and liquor stores, don't have to go through the Planning Commission and staff. Activists say the city should require restaurants to get a special-use permit that could impose tough restrictions on hours, noise and other issues.
The Midtown Business Association says it urges bars to strictly follow operating conditions on their licenses. It's about responsibility and respect, says its executive director Elizabeth Studebaker.
Police Chief Rick Braziel hears residents' concerns, but he told me, "Concentration is only a problem when you have vendors that don't comply with the rules."
The department is trying to put more conditions on bars' entertainment permits to give them more incentive to comply; if they can't offer live music, they will lose business, Braziel says.
Albrecht wasn't willing to say how many more bars and restaurants that ABC will allow in midtown, but did say it isn't that much different from other nightlife districts in California.
The challenge, he says, is finding the right balance between entertainment for patrons and visitors and peace and quiet for residents.
Clearly, midtown Sacramento isn't in that happy place.
ENFORCEMENT OF ALCOHOL LAWS
While state alcohol regulators issue thousands of licenses annually, they impose relatively few fines and other disciplinary actions. Figures for fiscal year 2010-11:
BY THE NUMBERS
12,600: Total permanent licenses issued
4: Total permanent licenses denied
82,844: Total permanent licenses renewed
3,026: Total criminal arrests
990: Total number of fines
$2.9 million: Total amount of fines collected
393: Total license suspensions and revocations stayed
13: Total licenses revoked
Source: California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Sacramento Bee