City commission pushes booze ban at North Beach festivals, raising concerns about an antifun crackdown at the start of the street fair season
By Amanda Witherell
Concerns about public drinking in North Beach and stifled public debate are conspiring to cripple a pair of popular outdoor festivals, possibly creating a troubling precedent for other events at the start of San Francisco’s festival and street fair season.
“We’ll have to cancel this year’s festival,” Robbie Kowal, who runs the North Beach Jazz Festival, said of the possibility of not getting his alcohol permit. “Seventy-five percent of our funding comes from the sale of alcohol.”
The Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee is set to review the jazz festival’s permit May 3, and if sentiments among the three mayor-appointed commissioners haven’t changed, they might not allow Kowal and his partners, John Miles and Alistair Monroe, to set up bars and serve drinks to local jazz fans in Washington Square Park, as they’ve been doing without challenge for the past 12 years.
“We’ve never even had a hearing to get a permit before,” Kowal said. “We’ve had no arrests and no [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] violations. We’re being punished when we haven’t done anything wrong. We’re caught up in this whole North Beach Festival situation.”
Kowal was referring to a dispute involving the neighborhood’s other popular street fair, the North Beach Festival, a 52-year street fair that had its permission to sell alcohol in the park yanked this year. The festival is hosted by the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, whose director, Marsha Garland, is a political adversary of the area’s supervisor, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin.
The problem started when parks general manager Yomi Agunbiade determined that a long-standing ban on alcohol in city parks should also apply during festivals. Two out of three members of the Rec and Park Commission’s Operations Committee agreed with that ruling during an April 5 meeting, and it became official policy.
Then, as the North Beach Festival permit went to the full commission for approval April 20, the words “permission to serve beer and wine” disappeared from the agenda item. Those words had appeared on an earlier version of the agenda, allowing the commission to grant what Garland had received with every permit for the last 20 years. The agenda change meant the commission couldn’t even discuss the alcohol issue, let allow issue a permit that allowed it.
Commissioner Jim Lazarus questioned a representative of the City Attorney’s Office about it and was told that the full commission couldn’t hear the policy if the general manager and Operations Committee were in agreement.
“I was taken aback by the fact that the full request of the applicant to serve beer and wine was not on the calendar,” Lazarus told us. “I’ve been on the commission for three and a half years, and I’ve never seen that happen before for this kind of issue.”
This story is still unfolding, but observers are openly wondering whether this is an isolated case of political sabotage or whether this battle over beer could hurt the summer festival season.
Wine and beer sales have always played a critical role in the financial viability of many of the city’s summer festivals. In a city that’s never been afraid of a liberal pour, many are beginning to wonder if the good times are over, and if so, why?
“The Rec and Park meeting was so disheartening, and if it’s used as a precedent in any way, it will harm other events. If the oldest street fair in this city can be chipped away at like that, who’s next?” said Lindsey Jones, executive director of SF Pride, the largest LGBT festival in the country.
Some North Beach residents think this Rec and Park procedural shell game is punishment for Garland and her organization’s opposition to Peskin, whom they blame for the change.
“Aaron Peskin would like to take Marsha Garland’s livelihood away,” said Richard Hanlin, a landlord and 30-year resident of North Beach who filed a complaint over the incident with the Ethics Commission.
“They want to railroad Marsha,” said Lynn Jefferson, president of the civic group North Beach Neighbors. “They want to see her out of business. If she doesn’t have those alcohol sales, she’ll personally go bankrupt.”
At the heart of the Garland-Peskin beef is a 2003 battle over a lot at 701 Lombard St. known as “the Triangle,” which the owner wanted to develop but which the Telegraph Hill Dwellers wanted for a park after they found a deed restriction indicating it should be considered for open space. Peskin agreed with the group he once led and had the city seize the land by eminent domain, drawing the wrath of Garland and others who saw it as an abuse of government power.
Peskin told the Guardian that it’s true he doesn’t care for Garland, but that he did nothing improper to influence the commission’s decision or agenda. However, he added that he’s made no secret of his opposition to fencing off much of the park to create a beer garden and that he’s made that point to Rec and Park every year since the festival’s beer garden started taking over the park in 2003.
“Just let the people use Washington Square Park. It’s the commons of North Beach,” Peskin said. “The park should be open to people of all ages 365 days a year. That’s just how I feel.”
Yet Peskin said that neither the North Beach Jazz Festival, which doesn’t segregate people by age, nor festivals that use less neighborhood-centered parks, like the Civic Center and Golden Gate Park, should be held to the same standard. In fact, he plans to speak out in favor of the jazz festival’s right to sell alcohol during the May 3 meeting.
Access became the buzzword this year, in response to last year’s decision by the San Francisco Police Department to gate two-thirds of the park off as a beer garden, effectively prohibiting many underage festivalgoers from actually entering a large part of the park. The section near the playground remained ungated, but many families were disillusioned by the penning of the party.
Enter the North Beach Merchants Association, a two-year-old rival of the Chamber of Commerce with stated concerns about booze. President Anthony Gantner learned that the park code banned alcohol from being served in any of the parks listed in Section 4.10, which includes Washington Square as well as nearly every other greenway in the city, unless by permission of the Recreation and Park Commission, which should only be granted as long as it “does not interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of the park.”
Gantner and Peskin both argue that the beer garden does interfere with the right of those under 21 to use the park. “The Chamber is basically doing a fair, and that’s it,” Gantner said. “A lot of its members are bars, and they run a very large fair with beer gardens that result in incidents on the streets for merchants.”
Though Garland contends that the festival is an economic stimulator, resulting in an 80 percent increase in sales for local businesses, Gantner claims that a number of businesses don’t benefit from the increased foot traffic. He associates alcohol with the congruent crime issues that crop up when the clubs let out on Broadway, and thinks that selling beer and wine in the park only accelerates problems in the streets after the festival ends at 6 p.m.
Gantner has the ear of local police, who are understaffed by 20 percent and looking for any way to lower costs by deploying fewer cops. “It used to be we could police these events with full staff and overtime, but now we’re trying to police them with less resources, and the events themselves are growing,” Central Station Capt. James Dudley said.
He’s also concerned about the party after the party. The police average five alcohol-related arrests on a typical Friday night in North Beach, most after the bars close. But those numbers don’t change much during festival weekend, leading many to question the logic behind banning sales of alcohol in the park. Besides, if sales were banned, many festivalgoers would simply sneak it in. Even one police officer, who didn’t want to be named, told us, “If I went to sit in that park to listen to music and couldn’t buy beer, I’d probably try pretty hard to sneak some in.”
At the April 20 Rec and Park meeting, Garland presented alternative solutions and site plans for selling beer and wine, which represents $66,000 worth of income the festival can’t afford to lose. Beyond her openness to negotiations, Rec and Park heard overwhelming support for the festival in the form of petitions and comments from 30 neighbors and business owners who spoke during the general public comment portion of the meeting.
Father John Malloy of the Saints Peter and Paul Church, which is adjacent to the park, spoke in support of Garland’s request. “I think I have the most weddings and the most funerals in the city,” he said. “I’m praying that we don’t have a funeral for the North Beach Festival. If anyone should be against alcohol, it should be the priest of a church.”
So who are the teetotalers? Testimony included 10 complaints from members of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Friends of Washington Square, and the North Beach Merchants Association, as well as Gantner and neighborhood activist Mark Bruno, who came down from Peskin’s office, where he was watching the hearing, to testify.
Commissioner Megan Levitan said, “If anyone knows me, they know I like my wine,” before going on to explain that she was born in North Beach and even used to serve beer at O’Reilly’s Beer and Oyster Festival. However, she said, she’s a mother now, and parks are important to her.
“It does change a park when alcohol is there,” she said. “I do not believe we should serve alcohol in the park.”
Will that still be her stance May 3 when the North Beach Jazz Festival requests its permit? The jazz fest has never had beer gardens, and the organizers don’t want them. Instead, they set up minibars throughout the park, which remains ungated, allowing complete access for all ages.
Although there is hired security and local police on hand, by and large people are responsible for themselves. The organizers say it’s just like going to a restaurant for a meal and a drink, except in this case it’s outside, with a stage and free live music.
Though Kowal remains optimistic, he’s rallying as much support as possible, even turning the May 3 meeting into an event itself on his Web site (www.sunsettickets.com). His partners, Monroe and Miles, were concerned enough to swing by City Hall to see Peskin, who agreed to testify and help the Jazz Festival retain the right to sell booze.
“The first person to write a check to start this festival was Mayor Willie Brown,” Kowal said. “Peskin has always been a big supporter of the festival, which is why we think it will all work out.”
The festival is a labor of love for the three organizers, who barely break even to put the event on; after expenses are covered, any additional profit from the sale of alcohol is donated to Conservation Value, a nonprofit organization that aids consumers in making smart purchases.
“We were the first fair to use Washington Square Park,” Monroe, the founding father of the jazz festival, said. “We’re standing up for the right to access the park. It’s not about ‘he said, she said’ or who did what to whom. It’s about hearing free live music.”
So now comes the moment when we find out whether this is about alcohol, parks, or simply politics, and whether future street fairs could feel the pinch of renewed temperance. If the jazz festival gets to sell booze, Garland’s supporters argue, that will represent a bias against the North Beach Festival.
The commission will hear Garland’s appeal at the end of May, just two weeks before the festival begins. With contracts already signed and schedules set, the stakes are high. Owing to lack of funds, Garland has already canceled the poetry, street chalk art, and family circus components of the fair. She did receive an e-mail from Levitan promising a personal donation to put toward the street chalk art competition. Even so, she’s preparing for a funeral.
And if alcohol is prohibited at the jazz festival, it could send out a ripple of concern among street fair promoters and lovers around the city. To be a part of the decision, stop by the meeting and have a say.