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Fullerton aims to rein in rowdy revelers

Times Staff Writer

Fullerton Councilman Richard Jones remembers his sleepy downtown before upscale restaurants, trendy nightclubs and cocktail lounges began taking over the four-block district, and he knows he doesn’t want to go back there again.

“Man, we had crosses in front of stores, it was so dead,” he said. “It was known as the antique capital of Orange County.”

But Jones doesn’t like where his now-thriving downtown is headed either: a place where fighting, vomiting in the streets and intoxicated drivers have become so commonplace that the area is reeling toward being known as the drunk capital of Orange County.

“Fullerton is a good city, and it can’t go to hell in a handbasket,” he said. “But with all the drinking and tailgating and the urinating outside buildings, this place has become intolerable -- like the wild, wild West of 150 years ago. We’ve got to get things under control. If not, we may have to exhume Wyatt Earp.”

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Over the last year, city officials have tried to rein in their unruly bar and nightclub scene along Harbor Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue by dedicating four police officers to the bustling district and putting a moratorium on new liquor licenses for six months. But neither measure tempered things. In fact, the problems may be getting worse.

A cab driver was attacked and killed in May, allegedly by a man who had been partying in the downtown bars. In September, three late-night revelers from the Riverside area were leaving downtown when their vehicle hit a median and rolled over -- killing the driver, whose blood alcohol level was over the legal limit.

Police say most of those arrested on suspicion of being intoxicated, urinating in public, vandalism or assault are not from Fullerton or even Orange County, but rather the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County.

With nearly 50 establishments serving liquor and many of them connected through rear parking lots, tailgating before heading into the bars has become popular.

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“We’ve definitely become a destination, sort of a smaller version of the Gaslamp district in San Diego,” said Fullerton Police Sgt. Linda King. “There’s so many places close to each other, people are doing pub crawls from place to place.”

Recently, Fullerton officials realized that downtown had become more trouble than it was worth, costing about $1.5 million annually in police, fire and maintenance costs while bringing in only $560,000 in taxes. After six months of community meetings and committee reports, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance this month aimed at bringing a sense of order to downtown.

The law, which takes effect next month, calls for noise limits inside and outside establishments, tighter security, shorter wait lines and conditional-use permits for restaurants that transform into nightclubs after 10 p.m.

“We had this quiet little downtown for so long, so we encouraged all these restaurants and bars to come,” Councilwoman Pam Keller said.

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“We didn’t put the conditions on them because we needed them. And suddenly we’ve got this little baby that we ignored and she’s turned into this naughty teenager. Now we’re making some rules, trying to get that teenager into adulthood without getting killed.”

Councilman Shawn Nelson said most of the alcohol-related problems are caused by customers of restaurants that become nightclubs after 10 p.m.

“These places are licensed as restaurants, but it’s hard to tell that at 11 at night,” he said. “The lighting’s different than the day, the personnel is different, and even the employees dress differently. But you can see why these places would focus on selling liquor. It doesn’t spoil, there’s no prep and it’s easy to make a lot of money on it.”

Keller said she went downtown for dinner one night with her two small children and felt out of place.

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“There’s about two places we can go with our kids after 5 p.m., and that’s kind of a bummer for a majority of our community,” she said. “These places that are supposed to be restaurants have moved all their furniture, hired DJs, and it’s like a big fraternity party.”

Fullerton’s growing pains aren’t unique in Southern California.

The seaside town of Carlsbad in San Diego County has also seen its downtown village undergo a transformation over the last decade, from antique shops, art galleries and bars to upscale restaurants, brew pubs and nightclubs.

As in Fullerton, several of Carlsbad’s restaurants began turning into nightclubs after 10 p.m., drawing younger and later-arriving crowds, more foot traffic and more alcohol-related headaches.

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The Carlsbad City Council passed an ordinance similar to Fullerton’s that established sound levels after 10 p.m. and mandated that businesses implement security plans and reapply for entertainment permits. Four to eight police officers have been added to the downtown district on weekend nights.

Based on the reactions of several restaurant, pub and nightclub owners to Fullerton’s ordinance, Wyatt Earp may have been a more palatable solution. Many said they would have rather been assessed a tax to pay for more police patrols of streets and parking lots, cameras to catch incidents on tape and maintenance workers to clean up the area.

“Let’s get control, but let’s put our resources together,” said Joe Florentine, who owns a downtown restaurant, cocktail lounge and tiki bar. “I’ve seen nothing like a tax come across my desk on that. I’m frustrated with the process. A lot of these business owners are nervous and scared. “

Business owner Joe Juarez called the council’s action an overreaction. An interactive dueling piano dinner show at Juarez’s Rockin’ Taco cantina often attracts patrons from as far away as Temecula and San Diego. Some nights, a line of 75 people stretches down Harbor Boulevard. The new ordinance limits the line to 25 people unless the business owner can prove that a longer line can be managed.

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“What do I tell the 26th person in line?” Juarez said. “Now you can’t get into my place and you’re on the streets floating around, and what is your perception of Fullerton? It seems like we’re taking 10, 15, 50 steps back.”

On a recent Friday, a few hours before the happy-hour crowd would begin pouring off the 57 Freeway and onto Commonwealth, downtown Fullerton didn’t look as if it was challenging Newport Beach and Huntington Beach for Orange County’s premier nighttime destination.

Most of the restaurants and pubs were dead. The Stadium Tavern, a burger joint that features a wide variety of microbrews, was lively because it was packed with Cal State Fullerton baseball players having a pregame meal. On the patio, Matt DeSalle and Lisa Wilkie were having a late lunch, preparing for a night of partying.

DeSalle hadn’t heard about the new ordinance, but he wasn’t surprised that the city was having trouble managing its downtown.

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“Isn’t this the city of Fullerton’s fault for putting all these bars in this little area?” asked DeSalle, 31. “They have something like 46 bars in a four-block radius and you expect these kinds of problems not to happen?”

Wilkie, 30, said she hoped the city wouldn’t put too many restrictions on business owners.

“Fullerton became a great city when all the night life came,” she said. “People want to be here. Besides going to the beach, this is the place to be in Orange County. But when you bring in the clubs, you’re bringing in a younger audience, and they might not be ready for all the responsibility that comes with alcohol.”

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david.mckibben@latimes.com


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