Reacting to concerns from police officers and residents, the Los Angeles City Council has unanimously turned down a request to sell beer and wine in Charley Chang's Shell station in the crime-plagued Harbor Gateway community.
The council's 11-0 vote Wednesday concluded a seven-month fight by homeowners, who have blamed the widespread availability of alcohol for dozens of robberies, burglaries and other crimes in their blue-collar neighborhood. Residents said the service station would have become the 52nd liquor outlet within a two-mile radius of the site at the busy intersection of El Segundo Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
"If that's not an overabundance, I don't know what community would have one," Harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said, urging other council members to deny the permit. The council took action despite arguments from franchise owner Charley Chang that liquor sales are vital to the success of his service station.
The station competes with an Arco station across Vermont Avenue in Gardena that already sells beer and wine, Chang said.
Debate over the issue came just one day after Flores helped introduce a measure that would ban new liquor sales at all service stations in Los Angeles. In an interview, Flores described liquor-selling gas stations as possible contributors to street crime and drunk driving. She said the problem appears especially pronounced in the Harbor Gateway, where the concentration of liquor outlets--including bars, liquor stores and restaurants--may be higher than anywhere else in the city.
Police Cmdr. Stephen Gates, representing the city's Southeast Division, said there are 260 licensed liquor outlets in the 10 square miles of Los Angeles between 190th Street and Manchester Avenue. The area ranks second among the city's 18 police divisions in both murders and rapes and fifth in robberies and aggravated assaults, Gates said.
"What we find with these 260 liquor (outlets) is that we have to go out and handle the related social problems," which include drug dealing, loitering and street robberies, Gates said. "I'm diverting personnel that could be better used for . . . other cases."
Gates testified Wednesday along with a number of area residents, including Neighborhood Watch leaders and members of the South-Central Organizing Committee, an organization formed to fight the proliferation of liquor outlets. Organizing committee members said each new liquor license would hamper efforts to make the area safer for families and young children.
"You see 12- and 13-year-olds taking up drinking along with the 21-year-olds," Mildred Snipes, one SCOC member, told council members. "You're mixing a dangerous thing here."
Sharon Richards, a Shell representative, stressed that 24-hour video cameras and bright lighting would help deter crime and loitering at the station, which is midway through a $1-million renovation to add a mini-market and car wash. Only 10% of the market would be devoted to beer and wine, she said, arguing that the "family-oriented" operation would help improve the neighborhood.
By allowing liquor sales at a well-run outlet, Richards said, the city could help discourage business at places where crime and loitering are problems.
"I ask you to fight the issue economically, where it should be fought," she said. "Liquor licenses do not cause crime and loitering problems."
But council members sided strongly with the concerns of residents, expressing support for Flores' proposal to ban liquor sales at gasoline stations. Flores said the measure, which she introduced Tuesday along with Councilman Joel Wachs, is expected to come up for council action within a month. The two council members have asked the city attorney's office to determine whether the ordinance could be used to phase out liquor sales even at stations that already sell beer and wine.
Flores said the city has received more than 50 applications from service stations since April, when new liquor outlets were required to seek conditional-use permits. "They're coming from all over," she said.
Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents portions of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, said more and more residents are becoming concerned over the problem. Braude said he would have proposed a similar measure if he had not been beaten to it.
'A Serious Addiction'
"The time has come," he said in an interview, predicting that the measure will gain unanimous approval. "We kill about 50,000 people a year in the United States on our highways, and about half of those are related to alcohol. There's also a greater recognition that alcohol can be a serious addiction--that many people can't handle it."
Valley Councilwoman Joy Picus said the availability of alcohol at gas stations sends a signal to motorists "that it's OK to drink and drive. Psychologically . . . it gives a stamp of approval," she said.