A measure that would ban new sales of alcohol at gasoline stations in Los Angeles won strong initial support last week from members of the City Council, who predicted that the ordinance could have a dramatic effect in busy commercial portions of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
City Council members Joel Wachs and Joan Milke Flores, who introduced the measure at a joint press conference on Tuesday, said the ban would affect all gas stations that do not currently sell liquor. The two council members also asked the city attorney to determine whether liquor sales could be phased out at "several hundred" stations that already sell alcohol.
Although council members did not debate the proposal Tuesday, referring it instead to the city planning committee, support for the plan became apparent Wednesday during debate over a proposed liquor outlet in South-Central Los Angeles. Council members voted 11 to 0 to deny a liquor-sales permit for Charley Chang's Shell station at El Segundo Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, in the Harbor Gateway area.
The council action came despite arguments from franchise owner Chang that liquor sales would be vital to the success of his station, which is midway through a $1-million renovation to add a mini-market and car wash. Council members said the question is whether the city should give greater weight to the problems of station operators or to community concerns about drunk driving and crime.
"This is a terrible dilemma of competing values," said Councilman Marvin Braude, whose district includes portions of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. But Braude said more and more residents are becoming concerned about alcohol consumption and predicted that the measure will gain easy approval when it comes up for council action, possibly within a month.
"The time has come," Braude said in an interview. "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."
Other council members, including Joy Picus, Art Snyder and Zev Yaroslavsky, also said they favored the ban.
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.
Flores said Chang's Shell franchise was just one of more than 50 service stations that have applied to sell alcohol since the city began requiring conditional-use permits in April. But the case drew particularly heavy opposition in the area formerly known as the Los Angeles City Strip, where homeowners have blamed the widespread availability of alcohol for numerous reports of burglary, robbery and drunk driving.
Residents said the service station would have become the 52nd liquor outlet within a two-mile radius of the busy intersection, in the heart of a blue-collar residential area.
"If that's not an overabundance, I don't know what community would have one," Flores said. The number of liquor outlets in the area--including bars, liquor stores and restaurants--may be greater than in any other part of the city, Flores said.
Police Cmmdr. 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 aggrevated 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 Harbor Gateway 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.
'A Dangerous Thing'
"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."
Chang, a 42-year-old Korean immigrant, argued that beer and wine sales would be necessary to compete with an Arco station that sells alcohol just across the street and just across the city boundary in Gardena.
Shell spokesman Sharon Richards added that 24-hour video cameras and bright lighting would help deter crime and loitering at the station. 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."
Councilman Howard Finn, chairman of the city planning committee, said such cases--where a station is forced to compete for liquor sales with a rival in an adjoining city--are one reason he supports a proposed statewide ban on the sales of alcohol at service stations.
Although he voted to oppose the Harbor Gateway application, Finn said he probably would not support a citywide ban unless surrounding cities are under the same law. At the same time, Finn said, he is afraid current drunk-driving statistics do not yet reflect the availability of new wine coolers--increasingly popular drinks marketed in twist-top bottles.
"They look as inoffensive as soft drinks," he said.