A Los Angeles city planning commission ruled late Tuesday that beer and wine can be served at a restaurant on the ground floor of a skid row apartment complex that houses recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
Four members of the central area planning commission voted unanimously to overturn a zoning administrator’s March ruling that granting the project an alcohol permit could threaten the fragile sobriety of formerly homeless residents of the Skid Row Housing Trust's New Genesis Apartments.
The commission, acting on an appeal from the housing trust, said the project was a model of integration of skid row's poor and homeless into increasingly upscale downtown.
"This building is a beautiful example of what downtown can be with people from all walks of life getting what they need," said commissioner Samantha Millman.
New Genesis Apartments opened 1 1/2 years ago with a mix of artist lofts, low-income units and housing for homeless people, many of whom receive on-site counseling and substance abuse treatment.
Great Balls, a former food truck operation, plans to serve wine and beer along with a menu of ethnic meatball dishes at the building's storefront. The location near 5th and Main streets is at the tail end of a row of night spots and eateries in what was once part of the city’s official “containment zone” for homeless people and services.
Housing Trust executive director Mike Alvidrez said during the hearing that 79 of New Genesis' 106 residents are formerly homeless, including 56 who've been on the streets for years. Many suffer from mental illness.
He presented testimonials from doctors and other service providers that the trust's "harm reduction" treatment model, which unlike 12-step programs does not preach abstinence, works.
"Proximity alone does not trigger abuse," he said. "Do we really think very low income people by spending $24 on a meal of a glass of wine, that's how they're going to get their alcohol? The answer to that is no."
Maya Zaitzevsky, the zoning administrator who earlier denied the permit, was on hand to advise the commission. She shot back, "If you're integrating the community, why make the prices prohibitive?"
Alvidrez also argued other new bars and restaurants in the rapidly changing neighborhood are routinely granted permission to serve alcohol.
In its written appeal, the trust said the permit denial prevented “not only a high quality restaurant from flourishing, but ... New Genesis residents from enjoying the same downtown living experience that residents of any other building in the area enjoy.”
"Isolation and segregation has never worked," Elizabeth Peterson, the skid row trust's land-use consultant, said during the hearing. "If we put everybody together in one community, we can prosper."
Opponents of the permit countered that skid row, with its concentration of shelters and homeless services, is the largest recovery community in the nation and that serving beer and wine in the building put residents' health at risk.
They also said it was unethical for an organization with government subsidies to help the homeless to make money off alcohol sales.
"None of the other outlets are based in buildings built with our tax money," said Kevin Michael Key, head of the United Coalition East alcohol abuse prevention project. "They're trying to make money instead of taking care of their duty."
"We want a successful business there that doesn't serve alcohol," said community activist General Jeff Page.
Dozens of women and children, including some infants, filed silently into the City Hall hearing room to demonstrate their opposition.
The decision by the commission can't be appealed, although any member of the City Council could revive the issue. Permit opponents contend they will take their challenge to the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which still must grant Great Balls a liquor license.
Restaurateur Clint Peralta said he hopes to prevail.
"We're going to open," he said after the commission's decision.
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