Huntington Beach's top newsmaker of 2011 wasn't a person or an organization, but rather a controlled substance.
Throughout the year, the Independent's front page featured more drinks than a typical bachelor party. Statistics showed Huntington at the top of California cities its size in alcohol-related car accidents. State officials investigated a popular restaurant that had been tied to a large number of DUIs. Residents incited a hearing on whether downtown could have one more liquor-serving license.
At the heart of Huntington's alcohol issues are several questions, and the answers may depend on whom you ask.
Do the downtown statistics represent an out-of-control drinking culture, or just efficient work by police in catching perpetrators? Does the actual number of alcohol licenses — 39, to be exact — make a difference? And however rambunctious the neighborhood may get after midnight, is it still an improvement over its previous self?
"I don't know that it's keeping anyone away from our beaches," developer Robert Koury, who owns properties containing several bars and restaurants, said of the area's reputation. "I see families and people of all walks of life."
To some who have lived in Huntington for decades, the city's modern downtown affluence is little short of miraculous. Skinheads, panhandlers and Fourth of July riots are considered things of the past. Upscale hotels line the beach, while events like the U.S. Open of Surfing make the pier a world-famous destination.
But alongside those sleek structures and packed restaurants are many residents who have trouble sleeping on weekends, as bar patrons flood their neighborhood.
There's one thing on which everyone can probably agree: Huntington Beach, which the Los Angeles Times proclaimed "the 'Jersey Shore' of Orange County" in April, has earned a reputation as more than just Surf City. And many are looking to take action before that reputation gets worse.
'It's a few of them'
The year started with, well, sobering news about the drinking problem in Huntington.
In January, the state Office of Traffic Safety issued a report that the city ranked first among California cities its size in per-capita alcohol-related injury traffic collisions in 2009. The previous four years, Huntington had placed sixth, eighth, seventh and fourth, respectively.
The report found that in 2009, 195 people were killed or injured in alcohol-related collisions in Huntington. On the other hand, the numbers showed that police were slightly more aggressive than the state average in arresting drunk driving suspects.
Lt. Russell Reinhart said due to the concentration, the department automatically protests every license application and withdraws its protest if the applicant agrees to meet several conditions. Those can include curtailing serving hours, prohibiting glass on the balcony or other measures.
Reinhart said the number of licenses makes a difference, but the problem stems mainly from two things: customers and bar employees who both don't know when to say when. The vast majority of venues aren't known trouble spots, he said.
"It's definitely not all the bars and restaurants," said Reinhart, who has served with the department for 25 years. "It's a few of them."
According to a police report, the worst offender around the new year was Baja Sharkeez, which acquired such a reputation that the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control began investigating it in January. Police, who ask DUI suspects where they were drinking before they got in the car, had connected 72 cases to Sharkeez over a 22-month period.
Although owner Ron Newman disputed that the numbers could be linked directly to his restaurant, the city limited Sharkeez's entertainment hours beginning in March.
Other locations police identified over the 22-month period were Hurricanes Bar & Grill, which came in second with 52 drunk drivers, and Killarney Pub & Grill, which was third with 33.
Reinhart said downtown's alcohol problems began to worsen about half a decade ago as the area gained renown as a party haven. Still, he and others can remember a time when the neighborhood was even rowdier.
The hub of Surf City
Downtown Huntington, centered around Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, may be the city's most popular spot for drinking and revelry, but it dominates local life in other ways.
The city's two most opulent hotels, the Hilton and the Hyatt, overlook the shoreline, with the boutique Shorebreak Hotel a stone's throw away. The Surf City Nights market blocks the area off to traffic every Tuesday. The area boasts the International Surfing Museum, Surfers' Hall of Fame, Surfing Walk of Fame and historic homes and buildings.
There was a recent time, though, when the neighborhood was hardly a tourist mecca.
City historian Jerry Person, who moved to town in the 1970s, remembers the area then as rough and dominated by bikers and punks. Most of the neighborhood's businesses, he said, were mom-and-pop establishments, and less than half a dozen of them served alcohol.
That lack of formal drink sales didn't stop the neighborhood from garnering a reputation for substance abuse. John Tillotson, the developer of the Plaza Almeria complex on Main Street, said three decades ago it wasn't uncommon to see junkies shooting up with heroin in the doorway of the International Surfing Museum.
"A lot of people didn't want to go down there because it was dangerous," he said.
In 1982, the city declared a redevelopment plan for downtown, and over the next decade and a half, the area grew steadily. The Hilton, new retailers and a massive parking structure opened, while single-family homes replaced dilapidated apartments and duplexes.
As revitalization swept the neighborhood, bars and restaurants came with it. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not have records of how many licenses existed in the past, but Person said the increase became noticeable by the early 1990s and continued over the ensuing years.
Plaza Almeria, a mixed-use project, welcomed its first tenant in 1999 and now houses five alcohol-serving restaurants along with the Main Street Wine Company. Koury, who took over a dilapidated block in the 1980s, later brought in BJ's, Coach's, Hurricanes and others.
Koury and Tillotson said the current neighborhood, whatever its flaws, is a far cry from the past.
"Over the last 15 or 20 years, things have gotten so much better," Tillotson said. "Take a look at Plaza Almeria. You'll see the kind of people who go there. This is not a dive."
In the midnight hour
Some who live near downtown have a less rosy view of the typical crowd — at least after dark on the weekends.
In the first third of the year, two grass-roots groups, HB Neighbors and the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn., published reports about the impacts of drinking on downtown. The former report listed the occupancy of each area serving alcoholic drinks along with the venues' Saturday closing time, concluding that up to 3,200 young bar patrons spilled onto the streets after midnight.
The Downtown Residents Assn. compiled data from state and local agencies and concluded that residents had almost an 800% higher chance of getting robbed, assaulted, raped or burglarized downtown than in the rest of the city.
To further illustrate his group's point, Downtown Residents Assn. leader Kim Kramer organized a midnight walking tour of downtown June 11. Nearly a dozen people, including City Council members Connie Boardman and Joe Shaw, and Planning Commissioner Mark Bixby, toured the area with police escorts and watched the rowdiness up close.
Bixby, who witnessed numerous fights and arrests on the tour, said he was grateful to the force for not letting the situation get worse.
"The police definitely earned their pay down there," he said. "I commend the no-nonsense, professional job they were doing."
HB Neighbors President David Rice said late-night mayhem is common downtown, where he has lived for nearly 20 years. By the turn of the century, he said, the last traces of bikers and skinheads disappeared from the neighborhood as gentrification and higher property values pushed them out. Lately, though, the drinking culture has brought in problems of its own.
"It is definitely less seedy from the 1990, 1991 riot era," Rice said. "The higher cost of living has forced out a lot of the riffraff, I guess. That part's been positive. However, we are importing people now, so it's kind of trading one problem for another."
A public convenience
When the Asian fondue restaurant Ka Shabu sought downtown's 39th liquor-serving license early in the year, some in the community balked.
Six residents, including members of the Neighbors group, wrote protest letters to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The department held a hearing in June, and an administrative law judge eventually granted Ka Shabu its license.
The protesters of Ka Shabu's license cited an overconcentration of alcohol licenses downtown. Under state guidelines, a Census tract is eligible for a certain number of alcohol licenses before it becomes officially overconcentrated. After it reaches that threshold, subsequent applicants must get permission to serve alcohol through a process called Public Convenience or Necessity.
Through that process, applicants must prove to the state that they will provide a unique or needed service to the area. Dan Hart, a district administrator for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said there is no set criteria for Public Convenience or Necessity, but that the department handles each case individually.
Huntington Beach reached its overconcentration mark after five licenses.
The application letters for downtown businesses, obtained by the Independent, show a variety of arguments in favor of Public Convenience or Necessity. The Shorebreak Hotel, which has the Zimzala restaurant, declared in its letter that serving drinks on-site would make it easier for guests who didn't know the surrounding area.
Some applicants cited qualities that set them apart from other downtown spots — TK Burgers stated that it offered the best ocean view of any non-pricey restaurant — while others merely described their clientele and style of cuisine.
Hart said the department investigates applying restaurants and, in some cases, grants permission for a license for reasons not covered in the letter.
Timothy McGonigle, a senior legal analyst with Alcoholic Beverage Control, said he had no records of any alcohol license applications being denied in downtown Huntington.
Despite the concerns expressed by some city officials, City Attorney Jennifer McGrath said Huntington does not have any laws to prevent more alcohol-serving establishments from moving in. When a bar or restaurant goes out of business, its alcohol license transfers to the next tenant — which, as a result, doesn't need to apply for Public Convenience or Necessity.
"Downtown is doing a vibrant after-hours business, but a lot of negative impacts come along with that business in terms of the amount of public safety services the city has to provide," Bixby said. "That's not being provided for free."
Revising the rules
As far as Reinhart is concerned, Huntington has already taken the first steps toward solving its alcohol problem.
The first, he said, is aggressive enforcement of DUI laws, which the department has funded with state grants. In addition, he cited a 2010 City Council resolution to toughen the requirements for entertainment and alcohol-sale permits and make it easier to revoke permits after multiple violations.
Before the tighter rules, restaurants hardly seemed deterred by having to pay fines, according to Reinhart.
"For bars that were making a lot of money, they'd treat that as the cost of doing business," he said.
Some downtown establishments have already taken significant steps to change their ways.
Sharkeez met with police over the spring and summer to work out a series of new policies, including limiting customers to single-size drinks after midnight, closing the doors to new customers after 1 a.m. and providing taxi vouchers. The city renewed Sharkeez's entertainment permit in September.
Hurricane's, another restaurant cited in the police report, took steps to avoid overcrowding and make sure security guards were properly licensed. In December, a group of Huntington restaurant owners announced the launch of the Surf City Food and Beverage Marketing Assn., which would lead certification classes in responsible alcohol serving.
Meanwhile, the "Jersey Shore" moniker doesn't appear to have scared travelers away from Huntington. According to Steve Bone, president and chief executive of the city's Marketing and Visitors Bureau, tourist numbers have held steady over the last year.
"I was going through the St. Louis security check at the airport a week ago and I handed the security officer my driver's license and boarding pass, and he took a look at my address in Huntington Beach and said, 'Surf City! Wow!'," Bone recalled. "And he said it with a smile on his face."
Timeline: A Sobering Year in Surf City
—City Council votes 4 to 3 against posting photos of repeat drunk drivers on Facebook.
—State Office of Traffic Safety reports that Huntington Beach led all California cities its size in alcohol-related injury car accidents in 2009.
—State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control begins investigating Baja Sharkeez, which has been tied to 72 DUI cases in a 22-month period.
—Councilman Keith Bohr appeals a Planning Commission decision to deny Bomburger restaurant a permit to sell beer and wine.
—Owner of Cucina Alessa restaurant, which seeks to serve alcohol on patio, files restraining order against Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn. spokesman Kim Kramer, saying Kramer harassed staff.
—Downtown Residents Assn. releases report analyzing alcohol-related crime downtown.
—Police Department limits Baja Sharkeez's entertainment hours in effort to curb DUI problems.
—Kramer and Cucina Alessa owner reach agreement and restraining order is dismissed.
—Bomburger, which wanted to stay open past midnight but end alcohol sales earlier, withdraws application for alcohol license.
—HB Neighbors releases report showing large number of bar patrons who spill out into downtown when bars close.
—Ka Shabu restaurant, which has applied for alcohol license, goes to hearing with Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control after residents send protest letters to state.
—Zoning administrator approves patio alcohol sales at Cucina Alessa.
—Downtown Residents Assn. leads elected officials and others on walking tour of downtown after midnight.
—Ka Shabu license takes effect after approval from administrative law judge.
—Shorebreak Hotel General Manager Marco Perry announces plans for Surf City Food and Beverage Marketing Assn., which seeks to help train restaurant employees in responsible alcohol serving.