Bottoms Up

Neighbors toast a rare victory as the city turns down a liquor-license application.

John Sadwith sees a neighbor up ahead and lets his foot off the gas, bringing his gold Toyota Camry to a stop in front of a split-level house in Denver's tony Crestmoor neighborhood. "We won!" he yells out the window.

"Won what?" the woman asks.
"Ambrosia Bistro," Sadwith explains.
"Oh, that. Wow!" the neighbor says.

Sadwith takes off after delivering the news, winding through the quiet streets, where the only noise is the steady purr of lawn mowers and the only smell is of freshly cut grass.

It's a good day for Sadwith.
He just learned that a three-month battle over a new restaurant at 340 Holly Street ended in his neighborhood's favor. He is happy to play tour guide in the upscale area, bounded by Holly Street on the west, Monaco Parkway on the east, Bayaud Avenue on the south and Sixth Avenue on the north. Residents of Crestmoor I and Crestmoor II--two adjacent neighborhoods--and a few people from nearby Hilltop have opposed the opening of the Ambrosia Bistro since they heard about it in March. Instead of being tempted by the potential aromas of buttermilk Belgian waffles with apple-smoked bacon or Malaysian baked sea bass with lemongrass, the neighbors smelled trouble.

Sadwith pulls into the parking lot of Pete's Fruits and Vegetables, a neighborhood market at 5606 East Cedar Avenue, rolls down his window and greets an elderly man standing outside. "Everyone knows each other here," Sadwith turns and says. Not only do they know each other, they stick together. Although Sadwith lives several blocks from the property that would have housed Ambrosia Bistro, he felt compelled to stand up for the few residents whose homes abut the site. The space had always been occupied by daytime businesses--most recently, Big Wheel Bike Shop--and residents liked the solitude it left at night. Homeowners feared restaurant patrons unable to find parking in the bistro's tiny lot would crowd their streets. They also worried about noise and litter.

Their only recourse was to try to convince Denver's excise and licenses department not to grant Ambrosia Bistro a liquor license. But rounding up opposition was difficult at first; another restaurant, Bistro Rue Cler, was planning to open across the street from Ambrosia Bistro in the Hillcrest Village shopping center--home to a hair salon, a dry cleaner, a fine children's apparel store and the Cheese Co. restaurant. So when petitioners went knocking on doors to gather signatures, neighbors weren't sure which restaurant was which. After members of the Crestmoor and Hilltop neighborhood associations met with owners of both restaurants in March, they quickly agreed that Bistro Rue Cler--buffered from the residential area to the west by a wall of new townhouses and situated behind a parking lot that can accommodate 39 cars, versus the five parking spaces in Ambrosia Bistro's lot--would have the least impact on the neighborhood.

On May 6, neighbors met at Carson Elementary School and allowed Ambrosia Bistro to make a final pitch. That night, things got nasty. Jon Barocas, one of the owners of Ambrosia Bistro, was pacing in the back of the room. Neighbors were asking what type of business would occupy the space if Ambrosia's liquor license was denied, Sadwith says, when Barocas blurted out, "There's going to be a 24-hour Quickmart!"

Sadwith says he hasn't found any evidence of plans for an all-hours convenience store and claims Barocas was just trying to bully neighbors into supporting his restaurant. "If there was a nail in [Ambrosia Bistro's] coffin, that was it," Sadwith said. "I lost it at that point."

The meeting ended with the majority of residents voting to oppose Ambrosia Bistro and to support Bistro Rue Cler, which has since complied with a neighborhood agreement in which it has promised, among numerous other things, to limit deliveries and trash pickup to between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.; not to throw out bottles and cans after 9 p.m.; not to install outdoor speakers; and to post signs discouraging patrons from parking on residential streets.

Lead by Sadwith, the president of the Crestmoor II neighborhood group and executive director of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, the neighbors then prepared to do battle with Ambrosia. They found an attorney willing to represent them for free and rounded up 106 people to attend Ambrosia's liquor license hearing. Although the neighbors presented a force to be reckoned with--and ultimately won--Sadwith says, "I really believe the process is skewed toward restaurants."

He is referring to a precedent the city follows when determining whether to approve liquor licenses. In 1970, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision not to allow consideration of neighborhood concerns such as possible vandalism, noise and increased traffic or parking when reviewing liquor-license applications. Those concerns were deemed "speculative," meaning neighbors were only guessing those outcomes would result from a new restaurant or bar.

Applicants for liquor licenses must prove that their establishment will meet both the needs and desires of the neighborhood. To do that, they look at a ten-block region surrounding the proposed restaurant or bar and count the number of places that have liquor licenses. If only a few such establishments exist within the area, the applicant has a better chance of showing that there is a need for another one. There are only eight places with liquor licenses in the area surrounding Crestmoor.

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