By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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"Anyone who moves downtown expects it to be noisier," agrees Arca. But there's acceptable noise, and there's excessive noise: outdoor speakers, live bands on patios, the noise around quitting time. Between 1:30 and 2 a.m., the clubs let out, and the streets of lower downtown are full of revelers heading home or off to some other haunt.
"People know there's going to be commotion, but I think some of the bars overserve," Arca continues. "People can't handle their alcohol." Fights often break out, and "when that happens, residents do get pretty concerned."
According to records at the Department of Excise and Licenses, there are approximately ninety liquor licenses in the belt of blocks between 14th and 21st streets and between Larimer and Wynkoop streets -- an area that also includes Larimer Square and Coors Field.
"There's a large number of liquor licenses in an area never designed for the number of people it's getting," says Captain Lamb. "The number-one problem in LoDo is overserving. It's a problem, because what are they going there for?" The DPD often sends undercover officers into bars to see if they serve drunk patrons or if they let in underage kids. The officers tell bar owners they should "want to set a reputation as a bar that doesn't tolerate trouble. If you set that tone, you won't have any trouble," Lamb says.
But no matter how hard the police and bar owners work to make evenings go smoothly, LoDo may have hit a critical mass of bars, cars and crowds. "I don't believe we need any more liquor licenses," says Lamb. "I think we've got enough."
In order to receive a liquor license or a dance cabaret license, which allows dancing and live music, a business must complete an application and receive the necessary zoning permit. The city then holds a public hearing, at which an applicant must prove that the area needs and wants his establishment. The city's Department of Excise and Licenses weighs evidence at the hearing in the form of signatures for and against the project, the number of witnesses who show up, and the witnesses' testimony.
Businesses must also submit applications when they want to modify their premises -- by putting in a nightclub, say, or lengthening the bar or adding a patio.
In recent years, LoDo residents have actively worked to keep out unwanted bars and clubs. In 1996 they successfully blocked a license for a proposed 7,000-square-foot nightclub called Planet Lodo in the 1300 block of Wazee. And in 2000 alone, the St. Charles Neighborhood Association has met with ten restaurants, bars or clubs either seeking new licenses or trying to modify an existing license.
Lately, dance cabaret licenses have become the focus of the neighborhood's efforts. "Dance clubs have the most difficulty responding to the environment," Arca says. "Residents are asking, 'Are there too many dance cabarets in lower downtown?' If you have a standard restaurant with bar, people are there to have a good meal, a good time, and go home." At clubs, however, there's more drinking, a more active environment and "more potential for problems breaking out," he adds. "It's totally unscientific, but that's the feeling."
Mark Kinsey, general manager of the Sports Column, at 1930 Blake, applied for a cabaret license in March 2000; he says he wanted a place where people could shake and dance a bit after major sports victories. The license was approved in June after a lengthy hearing in May during which St. Charles members let loose with a volley of complaints. According to Kinsey, those complaints had less to do with the possibility of a dance club than they did with loud outdoor speakers on the Sports Column patio. "It was an opportunity for them to get us to abide by some of their policies, but I think the hearing officer was aware of that," he says.
Kinsey doesn't begrudge neighbors their concerns about noise, but he knows that if his outdoor speakers were removed, other clubs would have had to remove theirs, too. "The biggest argument with me is that I know what I'm getting into," he says. "If I move in next to a bar, I expect to hear music and occasional screams."
When Rodney Franks went through the initial process to get a license for Swanky's, his bar/restaurant at 1938 Blake, two years ago, neighborhood opposition "came down to almost intimidation," he says. Residents wanted to inspect his books before agreeing to support his application, he remembers. "I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna let any of you inspect my books,'" and he also balked at a request that neighbors be allowed to approve any subsequent buyers should he sell the building. City licensing laws already have a mechanism in place for such situations, he notes.
"I think they're saying, 'We should have the priority as far as what goes on down here,'" Franks says. "If I spent that much money on property, I'd probably have the same view. But I work sixteen to eighteen hours down here. I probably am down here more than they are."
Not all liquor-license applications are contentious. So far this year, the St. Charles Neighborhood Association has supported two of the ten applications and did not contest six others. (The owners of A-Bar, a nightspot in Union Station, had also applied for a dance cabaret license but withdrew their application once neighbors objected.) "We feel strongly that our record to date shows that we take an evenhanded and responsible approach to liquor licensing in Lower Downtown," Arca stated in his recent letter to members.