Santa Monica has embarked on a journey to devise a citywide alcohol policy amid sharp disagreement over whether the city is turning into a mecca for booze.
The debate, in part, is about where the balance should be struck between the development of the Third Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Pier and the rest of downtown as regional entertainment centers and as a healthy environment for residents.
"What do we want our city to be?" Planning Commission President Ralph Mechur asked the City Council at a study session on the alcohol issue Tuesday.
Also at issue is whether the emphasis of the policy should be on managing outlets through education and strict rules for operators or whether the answer lies in refusing to grant permits for alcohol.
Tom Carroll, executive director of the nonprofit company that manages Third Street Promenade, favors the education-regulation approach. "It's the environment we create," said Carroll, who has been defending the Promenade from attacks that it is a problem alcohol environment, a contention he disputes.
The impetus for the alcohol policy has come from the Planning Commission, which has been pressing the council for direction.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, several planning commissioners expressed alarm at the number of permits they have been seeing for establishments serving alcohol--even the lunch counter at the Newberry's store on Wilshire Boulevard has gotten preliminary approval to serve beer and wine.
"I don't think that's an appropriate use," said Planning Commissioner Jennifer Polhemus. "What we tell our kids is ineffective in the context of a city that doesn't show concerns about alcohol."
Santa Monica has 319 operating alcohol outlets and has authorized permits for 31 more. Those pushing for a drier city say this amounts to an undue concentration of alcohol outlets that should therefore translate into a more restrictive policy toward new permits.
Stephanie Barbanell, chairwoman of the Westside Alcohol Policy Coalition, questioned the wisdom of issuing more alcohol licenses for the redeveloping Santa Monica Pier, which is public property. Barbanell noted that Santa Monica High School is surrounded by 105 alcohol outlets.
Santa Monica police statistics, however, do not support the contention put forth by some advocates of a more restrictive policy that the large number of alcohol-serving establishments on the Promenade and surrounding streets translates into an increase in alcohol-related crime.
Though four out of 10 arrests in Santa Monica involve alcohol, the number of arrests for drunk driving has decreased in the past two years. In 1989, there were 1,151 drunk driving arrests. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 20 of this year, there have been just 449. Downtown Santa Monica, furthermore, is not in the city's top two drunk driving arrest areas, which are the Pico Corridor and Ocean Park.
Seventy-one percent of the 1,404 people arrested this year for being drunk in public are listed in police records as transients.
City Councilman Dennis Zane, a key architect of the Promenade and Pier restoration plans, said the statistics show that the city is not in an alcohol crisis. "I don't agree there is an emergency," Zane said in an interview. "I've seen no widespread expression of community concern."
Zane has accused some of those pressing for alcohol curbs of using the issue as a means of stopping development. Planning commissioners and council members seeking the curbs deny it, saying the proliferation of alcohol is a serious issue in its own right.
Holding the opposite view from Zane, City Councilman Kelly Olsen repeatedly tried--with mixed success--to encourage alcohol experts who testified before the council Tuesday to sound the alarm for putting the brakes on alcohol permits.
"There's growing evidence in the public health field that the increased availability (of alcohol) correlates with alcohol problems," said Friedner Wittman, of the Institute for Social Change at Berkeley.
Wittman warned the council that the state Alcohol Beverage Control Department, beset by massive budget cuts, "is going out of the enforcement business," leaving the management of alcohol to local authorities. He urged Santa Monica to impose conditions at the licensing stage because once a license is granted it is difficult to take it away.
Another authority, Dr. Joe Takamine, an internist who helped set up the substance abuse program at St. John's Hospital, offered grim statistics on the cost of alcohol. Overall, he said, alcohol accounts for one out of 12 deaths nationwide. One-third of traffic fatalities are related to alcohol, he added, as are 60% to 70% of drownings.
With prodding from Olsen and his ally, Councilman Ken Genser, several speakers suggested that the police statistics did not accurately reflect the extent of the problem. One speaker speculated that drunk driving arrests were down because police were paying greater attention to drug dealing in city parks.
The City Council ultimately agreed to ask the Planning Commission to conduct hearings and come up with a proposal for a citywide alcohol policy.