U.S. Open crowd problems better, worse, just shifting around, residents say

Huntington Beach officials and promoters of the U.S. Open of Surfing vowed to downtown residents that they would tone down the event this year and increase safety.

Five days into the city's biggest annual surfing competition, many residents told officials during a community meeting Wednesday that the changes have created a much better atmosphere downtown.

However, some said problems that plagued the event in the past — intoxicated visitors, fights, illegal parking and littering — have moved away from Main Street into surrounding neighborhoods.

"We are going to try to take in what your concerns are, and if we can, make some adjustments to address those concerns," Police Chief Robert Handy said. "We expect this weekend to be busier than last weekend. … So if there are things that you are upset about, we want to know about them. I might not be able to fix them all … but we will do our best."

About 100 people filled Main Street Library's children's reading wing, where emotions were slightly more laid-back than about a year ago.

Angry residents filled the same room last August during the city's first Downtown Task Force meeting after a disturbance broke out at the end of the 2013 U.S. Open. It cost the city $30,800 to repair damage done by an unruly crowd that swept through Main Street.

Resident James Torres, who lives on Fifth Street, said Wednesday that there has been a "night and day" difference between this year's event and last year's.

"I wanted to thank everybody who put in their time — officers, council members and other staff members — to do all this and create this atmosphere," he said. "To me, the tone last year was 'Party on, bro,' and the tone this year is 'Don't Tase me, bro.'"

Resident Elaine Barbin agreed with Torres, adding that police have addressed many of the major issues and that "petty annoyances" such as littering and large crowds will dissipate as the event comes to an end.

"We live in a vacation-destination environment and there are going to be petty annoyances, but there's a huge difference between petty annoyances and criminal activity," Barbin said.

This year, the Police Department has deployed a horseback unit and trained security guards and installed several new cameras downtown to try to ensure safety.

IMG Action Sports, promoter of the U.S. Open, also has tried to change the event's tone, such as eliminating its live-music stage and public skate bowl and reducing the venue's overall footprint.

Despite the changes, resident Lisa Dellano said nothing has improved. Dellano, who lives on Third Street – what she refers to as the "war zone" – has experienced U.S. Open disturbances and said this year is worse.

"Our street gets everything," she said. "All the drunks come out of the bars and once they hit our street, it's a free-for-all out there. Our front yard is a big grass yard and that's where everybody fights."

Police expect activity downtown to increase as the weekend approaches, but Handy said he is confident in the department's plans to bring the U.S. Open to a quiet end Sunday.

"I can't tell you that there's not going to be any problems," he said. "I don't want to stand up here and tell you it's going to be perfect. … We think we've planned very well ... all the way up to staffing. You can't always predict human behavior, especially in a big, crowded environment, but we do think we have taken pretty good steps that we can jump on anything that starts to happen."

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