Bar scene gives Huntington Beach both headaches and a hearty revenue boost

About 1:30 a.m. on a recent Friday, Huntington Beach's Main Street is humming with activity. The air is crisp and salty, and despite the cold, women in colorful tube dresses are laughing and men in collared shirts are whistling in appreciation.

Police Sgt. James Schoales stands on a busy corner and poses a question to a 24-year-old man stumbling on the brick sidewalk. "How much have you had to drink tonight?"

The man, whose long light brown hair is disheveled, responds with uncanny precision, counting on his fingers. He slurs, but only slightly: A Mind Eraser. Two shots of Jack Daniels. A Guinness and a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two Irish Car Bombs, then three Bud Lights.

Smiling, Schoales directs him to a line of cabs.

PHOTOS: Huntington Beach police enforce DUI laws on Main Street

Tonight the officers on duty will break up two brawls, encounter a man passed out in the front seat of a cab and arrest a 21-year-old who voluntarily jumped off a 20-foot building. They will also usher numerous drunks home and aid others in finding a ride.

Welcome to Huntington Beach, the "Jersey Shore" of Orange County.

When the sun sets here, a three-block stretch of innocuous-looking stucco buildings morphs from a place where shopkeepers hawk beach towels and surfboards to one where bartenders sling bottles of vodka, illuminated by black light and neon.

Bartenders tell tales of throwing naked men out of clubs and breaking up bloody fights. And drunks wander so often into the wrong house looking for a place to sleep that police gave it a term — a "Downtown 459" — named after the state's penal code number for a burglary, since a resident's initial panicked call is because they think someone is trying to rob them.

But the debauchery comes with a price.

Huntington Beach is ranked No. 1 in victims killed and injured in alcohol-involved traffic accidents among cities its size in California. DUI arrests are more than twice the number in Irvine, a college town roughly the same size.

With 1,419 DUI arrests last year and a clear problem on their hands, city officials decided they needed to tackle the problem. The City Council placed restrictions on new bars — no beer pong or drink minimums, for example — and police began tracking where people had their last drink before their arrests.

After 22 months, they discovered that a disproportionate amount of the problems lay within that three-block stretch of Main Street. Baja Sharkeez is ground zero, with 72 arrests from January 2009 to October 2010 —- more than at any other bar in the city.

On a typical night, Baja Sharkeez is packed with people who look like they were born in the '80s.

Neon lights flash behind the bar, illuminating clear bottles in pink, green and blue. People suck down giant plastic syringes loaded with jello shots or sip from 84-ounce bright pink fishbowls full of "Donkey Punch," a potent blend of peach schnapps, vodka and fruit juices. Making out is the norm here — as is any attention-grabbing behavior.

At one end, men in kickball shirts crowd around a narrow wooden table for a fervent game of flip cup. It's a game with one goal: To get drunk. Considering the blood-alcohol levels of the participants, the technique is surprisingly complex: As the teams face off across the table, two men drink their beer cups dry, set the plastic cups at the edge of the table and try to flip them over.

When the night's winner slams down his cup, his team erupts in cheers and high-fives.

Residents who live nearby say urination, defecation, sex acts and theft are products of the alcohol problem and of a concentration of alcohol licenses in the area, according to Kim Kramer, a spokesman for the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn.

Betsy Ullstrup, who moved to Huntington Beach seven years ago from San Diego to pursue a relationship, said she's had to deal with screeching tires, loud fights and people throwing liquor bottles and beer cans into her yard. She lives two blocks from Main Street.

Ullstrup, 34, has learned her lesson about trying to plant anything of value in her yard. In the first garden she ever planted, she waited six months for purple tulips to sprout. The day after, they were ripped from the soil.

"You can't leave anything out because drunk people will steal it," she said.

Later, she tried planting cactus with thorns. People surely wouldn't swipe something covered in thorns, she thought.

"They still took them," she recalled in disbelief. "They stole cactus."

Ullstrup, a yoga teacher, has also had to purchase four bikes since moving to the city. The previous three were stolen, she alleges, by the notorious partyers.

Downtown Huntington Beach used to be a haven for crime, prostitution and drugs, but in 1983, the city approved a plan to redevelop the area. Now, run-down buildings have been replaced with upscale condos, surf shops and restaurants. Businesses generate $1,570,155 in sales tax revenue, 20 times the amount in 1988.

"It needed to have the kind of development that would draw people to it at all times of the day," said Steve Bone, president of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau. "Now it does."

The development has been good for city coffers, but it's caught between angry residents concerned about their quality of life and businesses that bring in much-needed revenue.

Mayor Joe Carchio said downtown businesses need liquor licenses to draw customers.

"Restaurants are not going to survive unless they have alcohol," he said. "Unless you're a McDonald's."

At Baja Sharkeez, which is also being investigated by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for potential violations, police have placed restrictions on the entertainment permit. Those include no live entertainment and no new customers after 1 a.m., the addition of a security guard and only single-sized drinks after midnight.

The restaurant worked with police to come up with the restrictions.

"At the end of the day, we want to be proactive," said Greg Newman, president of Baja Sharkeez.

But at Killarney Pub and Grill, another popular spot on Main Street, bartender Paul Roberts, 41, doesn't think Huntington Beach is wilder than other beach cities, despite the fact that he recently had to drag a pantless man out of the bar. He said people are attracted to the area because of its proximity to the ocean. Area beaches draw 16 million tourists a year.

"Affluence and sunshine breeds hot chicks," he said.

Come summer, police say, it will get even busier as the parade of partyers pouring out of bars looks more like the crowd after a massive concert, with throngs of intoxicated people trying to get home.

As Friday night winds down, Schoales and the other officers spot a woman standing all alone. They pull into an empty chiropractor's office parking lot and ask her what she's doing

"Nothing," she answers shyly, her hands in her pockets.

A moment later, her friend leaps off a nearby one-story building, landing feet from a dumpster.

The skinny 21-year-old's eyes become wide as he sits down near the car.

"Why did you jump off the building, man?" Schoales asks.

The jumper throws his hands in the air.

"Because I'm an idiot," he exclaims drunkenly.

The cops smile. Another arrest, another Friday night.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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