Driven to Drink


By Dave Good

(Published in the September 2010 issue)

Three years ago, Doug Sondomowicz and his partners sold Martini Ranch in the Gaslamp (now Double Deuce) and bought Pacific Beach Shore Club. Since then, they’ve been working to gain the legal and community approval needed to build something that most of their competition already has: a patio.

“We’re pretty much the only [oceanfront] restaurant that does not have an outside patio or deck area,” Sondomowicz says.

The Shore Club sits atop a souvenir shop on the boardwalk, “where Grand meets the sand,” as the company’s slogan goes. The proposed deck would accommodate more than 100 additional patrons, providing at least a view of the beach for people who miss being allowed to legally drink there.

Some locals, however, oppose the venue’s would-be development. Pacific Beach has a drinking problem, they say, and they place the blame on the backs of the bars and nightclubs that continue to serve alcohol long after closing for dinner.

“From 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.,” says Scott Chipman, chairman of the PB Planning Group’s alcohol license review committee, “we have [liquor] licenses that operate primarily as bars, serve little or no food, have drinking games, participate in pub crawls, and yet they’re operating under restaurant licenses.”

There may not be a University of Pacific Beach, but the community sure has the feel of a college town. Renters outnumber homeowners more than two to one, and the business district is a non-stop party zone lined with bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

“The opportunities to go someplace to drink in PB are pretty much limitless,” says San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye. She and her husband Skip should know-the surf shop they ran for years was demolished to make room for what is now Tower 23 Hotel, which boasts a popular bar.

If the numbers of DUI arrests in a given area are an indication of a party on overdrive, then Pacific Beach is pedal to the metal. Last year alone, there were more than 500 DUI arrests made there, by far the highest concentration of drunk-driving stops in all of San Diego. The next highest DUI total was in East Village, where police made just over 150 arrests.

But these numbers can be misleading, Sondomowicz says. For example, if the police were to set up more late-night DUI checkpoints at the beach than say, in Downtown, of course they’d issue more DUIs at the beach, so the stats could be skewed. Further, Sondomowicz points out that not all DUIs stem from on-premise (bars, restaurants, nightclubs) alcohol consumption. He adds that grocery, convenience and liquor stores (off-premise outlets) are responsible for the majority of alcohol sales.

“I believe it’s somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of all alcohol sold in Pacific Beach,” he says.

As of August 5, the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) listed a total of 180 active liquor licenses operating in Pacific Beach. Of those, 47 are designated as off-premise, but they still account for the lion’s share of alcohol sales, according to Sondomowicz.

So, who’s to blame for all that drinking going on in Pacific Beach? Bars and nightclubs? Restaurants? Liquor stores?

“When our business was there,” says Frye, “the problem, as I saw it, was not that there were bars or that there were liquor stores or things like that. It was the over-concentration of all of them.”

Scott Chipman would like to see Pacific Beach take control of the situation through the issuance of conditional use permits, or CUPs. Why a CUP? This, from the Governor’s Office of Planning research: “Another traditional purpose of the conditional use permit is to enable a municipality to control certain uses which could have detrimental effects on the community.”

CUPs are different from liquor licenses. They are essentially a land-use issue, explains Melissa Beach, an investigator with the ABC. “The city issues conditional use permits (and the ABC issues liquor licenses). That CUP would come with the application [for a liquor license] to our department, and we would take that into consideration.”

It works like this: a CUP is discussed at public hearings held by zoning boards or planning commissions and can have a significant impact on an existing liquor license. For example, a CUP can limit hours of operation, serving hours or the volume of alcohol that may be sold by an establishment-things like that. Such conditions would naturally decrease sales volumes at a bar or restaurant, thereby decreasing the value of the liquor license.

Sondomowicz fears what he sees as the dark side of the argument.

“If there’s a CUP, my business is going to be worth a half to a third of what it is now.” And, he says, the CUP comes with a price to the community. “No one’s going to want to remodel or clean up their businesses for fear that new conditions could be put on their license,” he says. “It’s a tricky situation.”

DUIs hurt the community, CUPs could hurt the bars, and the ABC is trying to sort through the whole mess. But what about the liquor and grocery stores? Who’s really to blame?

“The person who drinks more than they’re supposed to is who is to blame for drunken behavior,” says Frye. “Not the person who sells it.”

All the Hub-Bubs

Bub’s Dive Bar owner Todd Brown’s two cents

Todd Brown owns or co-owns Bub’s Dive Bar & Grill and Brewley’s Pint, in Pacific Beach; First Street Bar, in Encinitas; Bub’s at the Ballpark, coming to East Village; and Deep Deuce Grill, in Oklahoma City.

If you know Todd, then you know the guy’s got opinions he’s willing to share. If you don’t, here’s proof-in his own words:

Drinking and driving hurts everyone-the offenders, innocent victims, businesses and the overall quality of life for a community. The battle to stop this behavior isn’t new, nor does it have any clear-cut answers towards resolve. That being said, we want to do everything we can to limit the practice, right?

Getting rid of restaurants, bars and nightclubs isn’t the answer. If it were that easy, it would have happened a long time ago.

I’ve been volunteering in community service for about as long as Bub’s has been around, just over 13 years. I’ve served on the PB Planning Board, the Board of Directors of Discover Pacific Beach, Kevin Faulconer’s Alcohol Task Force, the Pacific Beach Community Advisory Committee, chaired the Pacific Beach Special Events Committee and the Hospitality Task Force, been a member of the Town Council, received the Community Patron Award and am now acting Honorary Mayor of Pacific Beach. Need a ribbon cut? Give me a call.

That’s all fine and well, but what does it mean? It means I’ve come home so frustrated and mad from community meetings that my wife can’t understand why I continue to do it. Being treated like a criminal is no big deal, but when you watch years go by and the community doesn’t move forward, that is no fun. Many of the people who care enough to get involved in our community have chosen to take a negative approach to solving problems instead of trying to partner up with the community members on the other side of certain issues, mostly alcohol related, in order to find truly effective solutions.

I can promise you, CUPs are not the answer for Pacific Beach. In an established business district like ours, you only serve to lock-in the current conditions with more government overlay. CUPs can be an effective form of community control when they are used in the right place at the right time. Look at Little Italy- excellent example of a neighborhood that completely revitalized itself for success. A CUP was part of that process. Then again, so was adding liquor licenses to the area. Anyone up for that?

The bars, restaurants and nightclubs don’t even account for 30 percent of the alcohol sold in Pacific Beach. Not my opinion or a statistic to make my point, just a fact. The off-premise guys (i.e. liquor stores, groceries, et cetera) already have a CUP in place. I wonder how effective the people calling for additional CUPs feel that one is.

Point is, we have a unique situation in Pacific Beach. We are a small community of approximately 40,000 residents; that can swell to 100,000 people just by adding a beautiful sunny day to the mix. Beware of statistics. We already know one DUI is too many. Residents and business owners should be working together and pooling resources to re-brand Pacific Beach. We need to change the mindset of the people who come to the beach, as well as some of the ones that live here, to understand how lucky we all are to have such a beautiful beach community and how we need to be respectful of that opportunity.

In my mind, that doesn’t mean you can’t have as much fun as you want, including a cold crispy beer.

It just means you have to respect the privilege.

You want to blame somebody, then hold them accountable for negative behavior? Educate them about the impact their negative behavior has on our community. It works in our Community Court system that Discover PB runs-they have almost no repeat offenders.

We have never had a group of licensed operators, as in the bars and restaurants and nightclubs, that has been more cooperative and enthusiastic to help and contribute to Pacific Beach. Many have improved their locations and their business practices, and it’s paid off. More people than ever are coming to the beach. Thing is, with more people comes more problems. It’s an unfortunate reality. As a whole, the hospitality group at the beach probably operates around a 99.5 percent success rate-pretty good measure for any business. People come down and eat and drink and have fun on the beach, all while getting home safely. Great, right?

Here’s the thing, on a busy day in PB, that one-half of one percent can amount to (using 50,000 people as an example) 250 “not-so-fun-to-be around” people. It really only takes a couple of idiots that don’t give a crap about PB to do some real damage. Doesn’t seem equitable or effective to me to start laying blame on the people who really are vested in our community. Keep in mind that example gives you 49,750 fun people and families who spend money and exercise their right to enjoy the beach and all its amenities.

It’s time to stop comparing Pacific Beach to other communities and statistics. We need to work together to improve our quality of life. Clean the place up, enforce operating practices both on a local level and through already existing laws. Really try to understand what the issues are and effective ways to solve them, so we can work together to change the perception that some have of Pacific Beach. Change the perception and mindset of our beachgoers, and you’ll change their behavior for the better, for all of us.