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Cyber Cafe Crackdown Looms

Orange County

Business: The Garden Grove City Council meets Tuesday to consider restrictions on the proliferating computer sites after gang-related crimes.

January 21, 2002|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With Internet cafes springing up faster than any other business in its city, the Garden Grove City Council is expected Tuesday to impose a moratorium on permits for new cafes and place tighter controls on those already open.

The new ordinance, if passed, would reduce hours, require surveillance cameras and restrict the number of computers to cut back on crowding.

The city's crackdown stems from a series of criminal incidents, mostly in parking areas surrounding the cafes.

The most serious was Dec. 30, when a 20-year-old was stabbed to death outside the PC Cafe on Garden Grove Boulevard. A 21-year-old suspected gang member has been charged with murder.

"After the stabbing incident, it dawned on us that we really haven't taken a hard look at these places," said Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater.

Johnny Oh, owner of the PC Cafe, said he can easily comply with most of the proposed ordinances. He installed security cameras and hired a security guard after the stabbing.

But having to cut back the closing hour to midnight will hurt his business, he said. He said he will express his concerns at the Tuesday meeting about that and limits on the number of computers, and he expects that other owners will also bring their concerns.

One owner who welcomes the new regulations is Diane Vo, co-owner of the Vietnamese Internet Center on Brookhurst Street, which will open next month.

"I can comply with all these regulations," she said. "This can only be good for everybody's business. We don't want gangs any more than anyone else."

Cyberspace cafes are generally operated in storefronts, with rows of computers set up to provide high-powered Internet access to customers who have no computers at home. Almost all charge a $2 hourly fee.

While some customers use them for information access or to check their e-mail, the vast majority of young people who frequent these places use them to play video games.

The PC Cafe, for example, holds two game contests daily that it calls "frag parties." On a recent afternoon, nearly all its 58 computers were being used, and every customer was playing video games.

Unfortunately, said City Manager George Tindall, some of these places become hangouts and attract gang members.

Police say seven gang-related incidents have occurred at cyber cafes in the past year.

"The problem is, these places were going into operation faster than we could get a handle on them," Tindall said.

Three years ago, the city had two cyber cafes. Three opened in 2000. But last year, 13 opened, and two more have permits to open soon.

Many other cities around Orange County have the computer storefronts as well, but the numbers in Garden Grove outstrip the others.

The tiny city of La Palma last year became the first in the county to issue regulations on the businesses, but Garden Grove's would be the most sweeping ordinance controlling existing cafes and establishing zoning for new ones. The moratorium would be temporary, Tindall said, until the city can study how cyber cafes can fit into the city's land-use plans, which may take until the end of the year.

The moratorium would take effect immediately. The new regulations would give existing businesses 90 days to comply.

Under the new rules, the cafes would be required to close at midnight. Most are now open until 2 a.m., and some until 4 a.m.

The city also would limit the number of computers to one per 20 square feet of floor space. Right now some of the cafes are so jammed with computers that they violate the fire code, according to a city staff report.

Other changes would require each cafe to install police-approved security cameras, eliminate the dark lighting and install clear windows. Almost all of them now have dark windows.

Justin Choi, who operates First Visions, an eyeglass store next to the PC Cafe, said he has had to call the police "many times" because of crowd problems there, both in front and in back of the cafe.

"The city needs to do something; the place just gets out of control," Choi said.

A month before the stabbing death, for example, two teenagers were assaulted by four people with baseball bats and wrenches just outside the cafe.

The police believe that some of the attackers were members of what is called a "PC Clan," a group that plays certain computer games as a team, competing with other teams.

At the Net to Net cyber cafe on Garden Grove Boulevard in November, 10 people assaulted a young customer.

Oh, of the PC Cafe, said that although a slaying occurred outside his establishment, he is proud that no trouble has occurred inside.

Vo said she expects her business to appeal to adults, not young people playing video games.

Quang Nguyen, a co-owner of ICE Internet Cafe on Brookhurst, hopes the city will make an exception for him on the opening end of the new hours.

The ordinance wouldn't let the cafes open until 7 a.m., but Nguyen says he does a rush coffee business after he opens at 6 a.m.

The moratorium on new cyber cafes would remain in effect pending a zoning study by the Planning Department, which would then recommend permanent zoning regulations for such businesses.

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