Bottoms Up

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

Based on the recent decisions, it appears the city is becoming more empathetic to neighbors. But Helen Gonzales, assistant director of excise and licenses, says there hasn't been any shift in the way the department treats liquor license requests in cases where there is neighborhood opposition. "We take them on a case-by-case basis," she says.

Whether the department will become more or less neighborhood-friendly in the future is uncertain. McCann, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment, is leaving her post on August 1; she was not reappointed by Mayor Wellington Webb for another term.

However, Mary Sylvester, who headed the city's excise and licenses department from August 1991 to January 1993 and has represented Grisby in her fight to attain a liquor license, insists that state and city laws are making it easier for neighbors to battle food and drink businesses.

Sylvester says that last year, the city decided to set the hearing date for a liquor license sixty days from the time the application is submitted, to give neighbors more time to organize against it; in previous years, neighbors had only thirty days.

Residents once had to argue that a particular class of liquor license--such as a tavern liquor license or a hotel and restaurant liquor license--wasn't needed in their neighborhood because other establishments with the same type of liquor license already existed. Thanks to a law passed in the last legislative session, neighbors now merely have to show that there are a high number of liquor licenses in the area, regardless of their class. If a liquor license is granted and problems ensue, residents can petition the department of excise and licenses to hold a liquor-license-renewal hearing one year after the establishment has opened.

Sylvester says neighbors often adopt a not-in-my-backyard mentality when new restaurants or clubs move into their neighborhoods. She lives in Park Hill, within walking distance of the Cherry Tomato, and finds that residential eateries "add to the vitality of the neighborhood. It's fear that drives neighbors to oppose liquor licenses. It was my philosophy as [excise and licenses] director to give it a chance. [Restaurants] may well prove to be good neighbors."

Still, the ratio of liquor-license approvals to denials has Sadwith convinced that neighbors are too often on the losing end. The Crestmoor and Hilltop battle may have left the owners of Ambrosia Bistro a little battered but not permanently fried. Mark Gordon, co-owner and chef for Ambrosia Bistro, says the restaurant will open in another location--which he can't yet disclose--by summer's end. "I applaud the Crestmoor community. They fought a good fight. We knew it was a neighborhood of character, which is what we liked about it," Gordon says. "The restaurant was designed to accommodate the neighborhood, not disturb it. We thought the bistro would be ideal there, but obviously the neighbors felt otherwise and saw the other restaurant [Bistro Rue Cler] as the lesser of two evils."

Gordon never considered operating a liquor-free restaurant; the dining experience is enhanced, he says, by before-dinner cocktails and meals accompanied by wine. "We're not angry or hurt, and we have no contempt for the neighborhood," he adds. "I just find it ironic that the reason we wanted to open our restaurant in that neighborhood--because it's such a close-knit community--is the reason we're not."

Although Sadwith was celebrating his neighborhood's win on the sunny June morning that the decision was handed down, the victory is bittersweet. Standing across the street from the little bistro that wasn't, he says, "I'm a little sorrowful over winning. If we'd lost and been able to appeal, we might have been able to overturn the 1970 Supreme Court law. Now another neighborhood will have to lose before the law can be changed."

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