Mean Spirits

How a politically fortified liquor store battle gave Congress Park a hangover that won't go away.

All Alex Pappas wanted was a liquor store. All his neighbors wanted was for him to sell his booze somewhere else.

Out of that fundamental disagreement, enormous consequences have sprung.
After more than a year of gathering petitions and sitting through rounds of hearings, frustrated Congress Park residents are talking about a system that doesn't work. The costly, increasingly acrimonious battle over the proposed Alex's House of Spirits has managed to entangle a host of interested parties, from community leaders and city council members to Mayor Wellington Webb, state legislators and the U.S. ambassador to Austria. The case has also cast a cold light on weaknesses in Colorado's liquor laws and the clear-as-mud policies of Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses, which is currently considering Pappas's third application in eighteen months for a liquor store in the same building.

In the fall of 1994, Pappas, whose family operates Chef Zorba's restaurant on East 12th Avenue, first proposed to open a package liquor store in an adjacent building that he owns between Elizabeth and Clayton. Opponents defeated that application with a strong turnout at the licensing hearing ("Bottled Rage," April 5). By law, a liquor-license applicant is not allowed to reapply at the same location for two years after an official finding that the neighborhood doesn't want a new licensee. But by exploiting what appears to be official confusion about the meaning of "location," Pappas has reapplied twice, using different addresses in the same collection of storefronts.

Neighbors say Pappas and his lawyers are making a mockery of the liquor laws and that bureaucratic dithering at Excise and Licenses has made matters worse. After first agreeing to an interview and then canceling it, Pappas declined to talk to Westword about the situation, referring all questions to his attorney, Darrell Nulan, who hasn't responded to repeated requests for comment. But in other interviews and meetings with neighborhood groups, Pappas has complained of discrimination, charged that the strident opposition to his store has been orchestrated by a competitor and vowed to keep reapplying until he gets what he wants.

"It's kind of the Douglas Bruce approach--wear them down until they give up," says Mary Ferrell, a Congress Park resident who attended one meeting with Pappas. "Alex has said he's going to do this if it kills him."

Much of the opponents' anger about the proposed store seems to be directed not at Pappas but at city administrators. Mayor Webb has taken an unusual interest in the case--apparently because Pappas, a 57-year-old Greek immigrant, enjoys strong support among leaders of the Greek community, many of whom have been staunch backers of Webb and hefty donors to his 1995 mayoral campaign. DeAnne Minner, president of Congress Park Neighbors, criticizes the "anti-neighborhood posture" of Excise and Licenses and sees the case as a litmus test of the Webb administration's commitment to neighborhood planning.

"Everyone is concerned about what this could mean," Minner says. "Not that this specific situation will happen again, but whether the administration is just saying it supports the neighborhood--or really means it. The mayor has backed us on other issues before, but that's when he was facing re-election."

Andrew Hudson, spokesman for the mayor's office, characterizes Webb's involvement in the case as minimal. However, a review of documents related to the case indicates that the neighborhood dispute has picked up considerable political freight with each new application. It has become a textbook example of how the liquor-licensing system works, or doesn't work, in Denver. Here is an insider's guide to working the angles--call it 13 Steps to a Neighborhood Impasse:

1. Test the waters. The one-block commercial strip on East 12th where Pappas wants to open his liquor store hosts a hardware store, a laundromat, a used-furniture store, a hair salon, a grocery, a card shop and Pappas's own restaurant, which obtained a license to serve alcohol a few years ago. Pappas thought it would be a dandy location for a liquor store, too, a business that would be less physically demanding than the bustling Chef Zorba's and would complement the eatery's takeout business.

But Pappas's neighbors had other ideas. Some months before Pappas filed his application, Capitol Heights Pharmacy & Liquors had moved from the corner of the block to a new location eight blocks east, and few people mourned its departure. Since the move, says Minner, "we don't have people panhandling, pissing in the alley or dumping liquor bottles in our yards. People felt the quality of life improved dramatically after [Capitol Heights] left."

There are currently 34 liquor licensees, including bars and restaurants, within the designated district of Pappas's application--an area Excise and Licenses calculates by drawing a diamond with a nine-block radius around the site. Neighbors say Pappas didn't bother to contact the neighborhood association before filing his request for the 35th.

2. When you lose, blame the competition. In October 1994 Pappas's application for a liquor store at 2602 East 12th Avenue went down in flames; hearing officer Terry Tomsick characterized the number of opponents who showed up to oppose the store as "overwhelming." But Pappas and his attorney, Glen Anstine, insisted that the massive campaign against the store was actually a pre-emptive strike by Capitol Heights owner Alvin Eisenberg, who'd helped pay the opponents' legal expenses and clearly had an economic interest in defeating the application. The "taint" of Capitol Heights's involvement might have provided grounds for Pappas to appeal Tomsick's decision to Denver District Court, but he didn't do that. Instead, he chose another approach--one that further cemented opposition from the neighborhood.

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