A middle-aged man hunches over the wall along the Orange Grove Boulevard side of the Rancho Super Market on Fair Oaks Avenue. He pauses for a moment and then vomits into the bushes and onto the sidewalk.
It’s about 1:30 on a hazy Wednesday afternoon. This is one of the sights on Eric McWilliams’ guided tour of notorious booze-soaked spots in Northwest Pasadena--an area he grew up in and still patrols as a community relations police officer.
There are many landmarks of trouble. “We had a murder there recently,” McWilliams says as he cruises by the Liquor Box on north Lincoln Avenue near Orange Grove.
The problems in Pasadena were noted in a recent study of two separate two-week periods that found that half of all arrests in the city--and all homicide arrests--involved alcohol.
City officials have grown so appalled by the link between alcohol and crime, especially in areas dense with liquor outlets, that an innovative but legally risky approach is being prepared. It will seek to penalize liquor stores and bars that breed crime and violence.
On March 29, the Pasadena City Council voted to have the Planning Commission draw up the specifics of a citywide alcohol policy. A pillar of the policy will be a nuisance abatement ordinance giving the city authority to penalize or close problem outlets. The policy would also set zoning limits on the number of bars and liquor stores in an effort to control areas deemed to be saturated, especially Old Town and Northwest Pasadena, which have the city’s greatest concentrations of liquor establishments.
The proposal would put the city on the edge of regulating liquor stores, which is the responsibility of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. A similar ordinance in Oakland was overturned by the courts after a suit by the California Beverage Retailer Coalition. But an ordinance in Los Angeles survived a legal challenge.
Pasadena leaders say they have no choice but to act. The state agency lacks the staffing to ensure that licensees are not selling to minors or allowing aggressive panhandling, loitering, fights or drug sales around their premises, city officials say.
The case of Uno Mas, a tavern on Lake Avenue, exemplifies the pace at which the ABC collars renegade bars, local leaders say.
After two years of neighborhood lobbying against the bar, the ABC worked out a deal with the owner for Uno Mas to move out of Pasadena by June 17, 1994. Groups such as the Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Assn. complained that Uno Mas was a persistent source of public drunkenness, public urination, noise, fights and complaints of lewd behavior.
“It was just kind of a source of varied problems,” said ABC enforcement supervisor Judy Matty. “It was a matter of accumulating enough evidence to take action.”
Uno Mas owner Maria Lopez denied that her bar is a source of problems and defended her clientele as law-abiding, working people.
“An injustice has been done to me,” Lopez said. “I think some administrator wants me to move for another reason. They want the space for something else.”
In 1988, Pasadena began issuing conditional use permits for alcohol outlets. The permits set a wide range of performance criteria--such as limits on cooler or bar space, operating hours and controlling loitering--that stores and bars must meet in order to get a license within the city.
The city has the authority to act against outlets that fail to meet their conditions. But officials had no tools to use against the source of most problems, stores that opened before 1988.
Cities do, however, have the power to control public nuisances. The new ordinance would place troublesome liquor establishments under that power, allowing the city to slap new operating conditions on the store or bar. Any establishment that fails to comply could be closed.
The new law also would enable the city to limit the number of alcohol outlets; although details are still being worked out by the Planning Commission, the city plans to force new applicants within 200 or 300 feet of existing alcohol outlets to prove that their establishment would benefit the community.
Planning Administrator Denver Miller said several municipal and zoning codes must be amended to enact these measures. He expects the planning commission to begin writing the new policies in June.
“We are not talking about prohibition, despite the impact the abuse of alcohol has in our society,” Mayor Rick Cole said. “It is widely and readily available and socially acceptable, but at the fringes it has a tremendous impact on safety. It is the single biggest drain on our public resources.”
Many liquor store owners agree that troublemakers tend to hang out near their stores, but say there is little they can do.
Scott VanDenHende, manager of Rancho Super Market, said that he attempted to discourage problem customers by boosting prices on the single cans of potent malt beers and bottles of fortified wines that are local favorites. But that hasn’t kept panhandlers and loiterers away from his store, he said. He added that he is losing business and that some suppliers refuse to make deliveries because of conditions created by loiterers in the parking lot.
The security guards hired last January seem only to have incensed locals. VanDenHende said that the store’s front windows were broken recently after a guard allegedly caught a boy stealing. Some neighborhood residents say the youth was roughed up.
“You would think the police would be able to do something about it,” VanDenHende said, pointing out the “no loitering” signs around the parking lot. “It hurts our business because people don’t want to go through (the lot) to get to the store.”
The city’s pending alcohol policy was first proposed by Day One, a community-based organization dedicated to fighting substance abuse. Day One leaders say the whole city pays the price for alcohol-related violence.
Day One used a grant from the Los Angeles County Health Services Department to study alcohol and violence, joining Pasadena police to analyze crime figures for two-week stretches twice in 1990-91, and twice again in 1993.
The study determined that, during the study weeks, alcohol was a factor in half of all arrests, all homicide arrests, 60% of rape cases and more than half of all domestic assaults. Not counted was the time police spent defusing alcohol-involved situations that did not result in arrests.
“Many people ask why we targeted alcohol,” said Angela Goldberg, who spearheaded Day One’s initiative. “Alcohol is the thread that runs through the fabric of many social problems--domestic violence, community breakdown and public safety. There are things we can do to reduce the problems. Alcohol policy is a real tool to reduce real problems in a real way.”
A soon-to-be-published study corroborates the Pasadena findings, reporting “considerable evidence that alcohol consumption facilitates assaultive violence.”
The countywide study by Richard Scribner, a professor with the USC’s Institute For Preventive Research, and David MacKinnon, an Arizona State University psychologist, went beyond the actual use of alcohol to establish a link between violence and the mere availability of alcohol.
The study showed that a high density of alcohol outlets, while not the only factor, sets the table for violence in a community. The study predicted that adding a liquor store to a typical city in Los Angeles County would result in 3.3 additional violent offenses each year.
That sounds right to Pasadena police, who paid 400 calls last year to the intersection of Orange Grove and Summit Avenue, where two liquor stores are situated across the street from each other.
“Would we have had 400 calls if the liquor stores were not there? Probably not,” Lt. Jerry Shultze said.
Given the strong association that the study makes between outlet density and violence, MacKinnon said that reducing the number of places where alcohol is available is sensible public policy.
But Renee Wasserman, an Oakland-based lawyer who represents the California Beverage Retailers, disagrees. Wasserman said “there is no empirical evidence” that alcohol retailers cause more public safety problems than other businesses.
Municipal attempts to regulate alcohol are misguided and unfair, Wasserman said.
“When you have arbitrary control over alcoholic beverages, you end up with more crime,” Wasserman said, referring to the Prohibition era in the United States.
“These ordinances are a smoke screen,” Wasserman said. “They are a thinly veiled local alcoholic beverage sales regulation. The cities want to . . . set up their own tribunals to revoke business licenses without due process.”
Wasserman used that argument to win an injunction against a similar nuisance abatement ordinance in Oakland. But Oakland also attempted to fine outlets for overburdening police with calls. Wasserman said that practice made it easy to prove that liquor outlets were being unfairly persecuted.
Pasadena is looking instead to Los Angeles’ nuisance abatement ordinance for guidance. That ordinance recently survived a legal challenge by the Korean Grocers Assn.
Los Angeles has successfully attached new conditions to stores rebuilding after the 1992 riots by focusing on land-use issues rather than alcohol, according to city zoning administrator John Perica.
“We cannot put in a condition that has the word beer, wine, alcohol and liquor,” Perica said. “We cannot use those magic words.”
Thus, the city can’t tell a problem store to stop selling alcohol after a certain hour--that would be regulating alcohol sales--but it can tell the entire store to close earlier. As a result, Perica said, license applicants and rebuilding store owners are volunteering their own conditions, such as limiting sales of single beers and fortified wines.
“It has been successful,” Perica said. “We’ve addressed about 125 problem outlets over the last year. People now know that if they don’t run a responsible business they will hear from us.”
Perica is quick to point out that the city isn’t just badgering alcohol outlets. He said that one-third of abatement cases are against other businesses and that his department has even pursued a church parking lot and a Little League that were causing nuisances.
Even as Pasadena’s alcohol policy is being hammered out in City Hall, the entire process has spurred some neighborhoods to confront, and win concessions from, several problem outlets.
For instance, the 7-Eleven parking lot at Lake Avenue and Orange Grove has been a crime hot spot. During the periods in which Day One conducted its crime study, 7-Eleven’s lot was the site of three murders, 10 armed robberies, four assaults with deadly weapons, five burglaries and many lesser offenses.
“When you carry 15 brands of fortified wines and malt liquors, you are asking for a certain clientele,” Goldberg, of Day One, said of the store.
Paul Little, a leader in the nearby Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Assn., wrote a letter to a local newspaper urging Southland Corp., the parent company for 7-Eleven, to do something. Goldberg advised Little and his neighbors to take their crusade to the source.
After several meetings with neighborhood activists and city leaders, the mall owner and the proprietors of the 7-Eleven and Chief Auto Parts, which share the mall, agreed to split costs and hire a security guard.
Since the guard came on late last year, violent crime in the lot has been reduced to one robbery report. Dev Nat, the owner of the 7-Eleven, said business is up 17% because people feel more secure about shopping there.
“I get a lot of positive response from the community now,” said Nat, who also stopped selling fortified wines and reduced her store’s malt liquor selection. “There is a lot of community support and more people are shopping.”
A similar meeting of minds pushed Kazi Ahmed to rid gang members and drug dealers from his storefront grocery on Navarro Avenue and Howard Street. His efforts improved the good-natured store owner’s community standing.
Since the neighborhood intervened, Ahmed, who is expanding his store, has started emphasizing fresh foods and groceries rather than alcohol. He also hired local contractors to help remodel the century-old structure, and he put local youths to work in the store.
“The thing in common is that we all want a good neighborhood in which to live and work in dignity,” Ahmed said.
Alcohol and Crime
Day One, a Pasadena substance abuse group, and Pasadena police studied the correlation between crime and alcohol during two separate two-week periods in 1990-91 and 1993. They found that either the suspect or victim was drunk or had been drinking in:
* 21.% of all actionable offenses.
* 50.3% of all arrests.
* 50% of homicides and 100% of homicide arrests (1993 study).
* One third of assault incidents and two thirds of assault arrests.
* 66.7% of forcible rapes and 100% of arrests for forcible rape (1990-91 study).
* 33.3% of sex offenses and 50% of sex offense arrests (1993 study).