Friday, June 15, 2012

Public Convenience or Necessity

An urbanist issue recently arose in Petaluma.  An application was received for a downtown wine bar.  The proposed wine bar, at 100 Petaluma Boulevard North, would also serve light food and offer relatively quiet musical entertainment.  The Corkscrew Wine Bar would be similar to other businesses in Petaluma, but would broaden the options for downtown evening activities.

However, the Applicant found that the path toward opening for business had obstacles.  The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has established a target of no more than eight alcohol licenses per census tract.  The census tract in which Corkscrew would be located currently has 66 alcohol licenses.

The head-shaking difference was easily explained.  The census tract in which Corkscrew would be located is surprisingly large, including all of the downtown plus far beyond.  Among the 66 alcohol licenses are the VFW Post on Petaluma Boulevard South, Lolita’s Market, Lumberjacks, and the Tea Room Café.  (For those not familiar with Petaluma, none of those locations are very close to each other.)

Speaking as an urbanist, I’d argue that the problem isn’t alcohol licenses, but homes.  If more people lived downtown, more census tracts would be required, perhaps reducing the licenses per census tract to the desired eight.  But that’s not today’s subject.

Compounding the concern about the number of licenses is a problem with alcohol abuse.  Late night in downtown Petaluma too often has problems with unruly behavior leading to assaults and other criminal behavior.

Under the applicable land use standards and alcohol licensing rules, the City is required to adopt a finding of “Public Convenience or Necessity” before ABC will consider the license application.  Because of the numerically excessive number of alcohol licenses and the late night disturbances related to alcohol abuse, the Petaluma Police argued for denial.  The Planning Department concurred with the Police request and recommended to the Planning Commission that the finding of necessity be denied, presenting a draft resolution that would accomplish this.

Then the local citizenry became involved.  Petaluma Patch provided a good summary of the issue.  The Patch article, which quoted me among other local residents, attracted numerous comments, many of them supportive of the Corkscrew application.  In favor of Corkscrew, arguments were made that not all alcohol licenses were created equal, that the existing wine bars were not contributing to the late night rowdiness, and that patrons of Corkscrew were more likely to inhibit unruliness by their presence than to exacerbate it.

When the Planning Commission convened a few nights ago, they asked questions along the same lines, quickly confirming that most of the downtown disturbances have origins at a handful of establishments, none of which are wine bars.  The Commissioners voted to continue the matter to their next meeting and to have the Planning Department prepare an alternative resolution, one that would approve the wine bar.

But the vote only passed by a margin of 4-2.  The two nays noted their problem with reaching an affirmative conclusion on “Public Convenience or Necessity”, wondering if the necessity standard was truly met.   It was a legitimate question, but I think it’s an answerable question. 

(With the conjunction being “or”, it isn’t necessary to establish both convenience and necessity.  Which is just as well.  Convenience feels more like of a market function into which a city needn’t intrude.  The extra words were perhaps only the effusive excess of an overeager planner who has now been lost in the mists of history.   We need only address necessity.)

Governments provide two distinct kinds of services.  The first are the services that are provided directly.  Delivery of potable water, firefighting, and street repairs are examples.  (Yes, Petalumans, the last was offered with a soupcon of irony.)

The second are the services that are provided indirectly.  Managing weights and measures such that commerce can proceed with confidence.  Establishing a regulatory system for banking.  (Another touch of irony.)  And providing streets on which people can safely engage in shopping, ambling, or greeting friends.

I spent yesterday morning in a Berkeley High classroom listening to student UrbanPlan presentations.  One of the problems with which they had to tussle was how provide an atmosphere of public safety in which their new pedestrian-friendly community can mature.  It was disappointing how many put a police substation into their project and considered the problem solved.

Police are an essential service, but they are a last line of defense.  How many people feel safe in a downtown where they regularly see people being arrested?  Or even where they see an unusual number of police officers on the street.  Safety comes when no crimes are committed, not when the criminals are swiftly apprehended.

And the best way to stop crime is to have eyes on the street.  Average citizens who are out and about, doing their business or enjoying their lives, and whose presence is enough to discourage those who would break the peace.  A responsibility of any city is to create an atmosphere in which citizens are encouraged to fill that role of casual deterrence.

For much of the day, downtown Petaluma is a safe and enjoyable place.  But for a few hours on a few evenings, it has a rougher edge.  And those few hours tarnish the reputation of the downtown and put a burden on property owners to repair the damage caused in those few hours.  It seems a necessity that city government create an environment in which law-abiding people are on the streets during those hours to reclaim the downtown.

A wine bar would do that.  It’s ironic that a wine bar would serve alcohol, the same beverage that creates the problem, but it truly only an irony.  Or perhaps it can even be described solely as semantics.  If the state had created two different boards, one to govern wine and one to govern all other alcoholic beverages, would we even be having this conversation?

I believe that the necessity burden-of-proof is met through the need to put eyes on the street to recapture our downtown.  I hope that the Planning Commission follows this same path toward a finding of public necessity when they next convene on June 26.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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