Prohibition returns

Prohibition returns

Commission reinforces city booze ban, bringing joy to the NIMBYs and sadness to the musicians and festival-goers

By Amanda Witherell

May 30 was a dry day at City Hall. Room 416 was over-packed with citizens breathing the stale, regurgitated air of heated words, arguments, and pleas concerning permission to sell alcohol at the North Beach Festival (NBF) and the North Beach Jazz Fest (NBJF.) The faces of the seven Recreation and Park commissioners sagged with the weight of nearly four hours of public testimony from the factions for and against the issue of booze in the park.

Both festivals were separate items on the agenda and considered individually by the Recreation and Park commission. After denying NBF’s appeal to sell beer and wine in Washington Square Park, dozens of people stayed in the room to speak on behalf of NBJF.

Marsha Garland, director of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce and promoter of NBF, after hearing her own damning verdict, stayed to fight for the smaller, more financially strapped jazz fest.

“I feel like I should be Aretha Franklin and sing ‘Shame, Shame, Shame,’” she said into the mike. “You’ve crippled us, but you’ll kill them,” she said of NBJF, who anticipates losing $20,000 to $40,000 if it can’t sell booze.

Voices against cited exploitation of the park and the neighborhood, “the invasion of commercial mega-events,” as Marietta Moose, a longtime fan of jazz and owner of Moose’s Restaurant, put it.  “Our neighborhood is already under siege by more problems than we have police to cover.”

Much of the discussion was laden with complexities concerning whether the park commission or the SFPD can grant permission to vend alcohol, whether beer gardens are a law or a police preference, whether the alcohol proceeds fill the pockets of non-profits or promoters, and whether events are commercial endeavors or community engagements.

“Is Sunset Promotions a 501C3 or C6?” asked Anthony Gantner, a lawyer and president of the North Beach Merchants Association. Sunset Promotions is the small, grassroots promoter of NBJF and has coordinated for the first year with the non-profit Conservation Value to benefit from the after-cost alcohol revenue. “If it isn’t, it shouldn’t be selling alcohol in our park.”

“Certain people don’t like people in their park,” countered another local resident. Comments turned personal as speakers stabbed old war wounds from other neighborhood battles, but the divisiveness centered on disparate visions of who has a right to use the park and how it should be used.

Enough confusion surrounded the issue that Virginia Dario Elizondo scampered downstairs from the City Attorney’s Office to pull up the relevant code from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control which grants daily permits to non-profit organizations to sell alcohol at events and defers to local jurisdictions concerning patrol, making no requirement of a beer garden. Park Code 4.10, which forbids consumption of alcohol on park property, including Washington Square, was also conjured, and in the end, it trumped.

“One of the issues is beer gardens restricting access,” said Commissioner Jim Lazarus. “If we took the position that we would allow beer and wine — if we allowed it with no beer garden — it would be up to the applicant to get a permit from the police,” he clarified with Elizondo, who agreed.

“The code, as I read it, puts responsibility on the commission, not the police,” responded Commission President Gloria Bonilla. “We have to make the determination if this is an appropriate venue or not. In this case, there has been a tradition of alcohol. We’ve been hearing from residents…We want our parks back.”

“Madame President,” Lazarus appealed. “The vast majority of input was the opposite. Is there some other bit of information out there? It’s certainly not the public testimony or written letters we received.”

Commissioner John Murray explained his experience negotiating with NBJF promoters John Miles, Robert Kowal, and Alistair Munroe, searching for alternative sources of funding for the show. In one day he was able to track down a $5,000 donation, and believes more would be available to sever the relationship between selling alcohol and a successful event.

“There are financial solutions,” Murray said. “I think as a body we’re working pretty hard not to kill this event.” He’s offered to continue looking for more money.

But promoters feel it’s not just the money, it’s a vision of the event. The room filled with a breath of hope as Lazarus moved for motion allowing permission to sell beer and wine without a beer garden and no restriction of access to the park. A painful silence lingered as citizens waited for a second, but no other commissioner offered one.

Commissioner Meagen Levitan put forward a motion as it was worded on the agenda, with no permission to sell beer and wine. Murray seconded, and it passed with six votes, the lone dissenting from Lazarus.

The departing crowd was thick with sarcastic snipes and furious asides, and a crowd of festival fans clustered around the door, clapping and cheering, offering congratulations as the handful of well-heeled NIMBYs left the room.

Originally published May 31, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian