Party on

Party on

Mayor’s Office steps in to ease the booze ban for North Beach festivals

By Amanda Witherell

“San Franciscans will still be able to enjoy their beer in the park at the event,” an elated Robbie Kowal told the Guardian on the afternoon of June 2, fresh out of a meeting in which the Mayor’s Office brokered a deal to save the North Beach Jazz Fest.

The event had been jeopardized by the May 30 decision by the Recreation and Park Commission to uphold a move by its staff and Operations Committee to deny the sale of alcohol in Washington Square Park. The San Francisco Examiner even erroneously declared the event dead on its June 1 cover.

But the Mayor’s Office intervened and hosted a long day of negotiations among the event organizers Kowal, Alistair Munroe, and John Miles and representatives from the commission, the Rec and Park staff, and the San Francisco Police Department.

In keeping with the commission’s May 30 decision, alcohol will not be sold in the park but on the street adjacent to the park in a gated beer garden. A portion of the park will be designated for people wishing to enjoy a glass of beer or wine while remaining near the live music.

“We’ve worked something out that allows everyone to move forward and the commission to stand by its policy,” Yomi Agunbiade, general manager of the Rec and Park Department, told us.

“It doesn’t change the nature of the event,” said Kowal, who had been concerned that a change in practice from minibars in the park to beer gardens in the streets would deter festivalgoers and detract from the general enjoyment of the event.

The organizers were prepared to fight for their vision of the festival and had filed an appeal with the commission to review the issue. Without the sale of alcohol, the festival anticipated losing between $20,000 and $40,000, enough to potentially necessitate calling the whole show off.

But after nearly four hours of public testimony at the last meeting about the jazz fest and the North Beach Festival, commissioners weren’t too excited about another round and were pushing for a compromise. “Everybody was interested in making sure the jazz festival folks knew the event was supported and that we wanted it to stay,” said Agunbiade. “The right people were in the room.”

Yet those not in the room were the North Beach NIMBYs who forced the booze ban, and it’s unclear how they’ll react to the decision. Event organizers around the city have been closely following the North Beach situation, concerned that it was the start of a conservative trend in policy and a new wave of intolerance for alcohol consumption in public (see “The Death of Fun,” May 24).

Commissioner Jim Lazarus cited the inherent dangers of a hard-line policy, telling the Guardian, “The precedent could be very bad. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it at other parks.”

The San Francisco Outdoor Events Coalition, a newly formed group of events organizers and promoters, has been calling for a hold on radical changes in policy until after the summer festival season, and it seems as though that call has finally been answered at City Hall.

“What we all have learned from this process was we should have communicated earlier,” Agunbiade said after the meeting. “What we will do after events are over this year is sit down and discuss any changes more in depth and evaluate how it went.”

Agunbiade said they will be looking at each festival on a case-by-case basis and will try to work with the individual needs of the venues and events. He added that they plan to “communicate a lot sooner and a lot more often to make sure these kinds of situations don’t occur.”

The compromise for the jazz fest has been extended to the North Beach Festival as well, but promoter Marsha Garland faces other obstacles. After the commission denied her festival a permit for booze sales in the park, Garland received permission from the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation for additional beer gardens on the street.

But that decision has been appealed by Anthony Gantner, a local lawyer and president of the North Beach Merchants Association (rival to Garland’s North Beach Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the North Beach Festival).

Garland says she won’t breathe a sigh of relief until after the ISCOTT hearing June 8, just a week before the festival.

Originally published June 6, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian