Shape Up Or Ship Out

Fighting neighborhood crime is just the tip of the iceberg for Capitol Hill's Unsinkables.

The neighbors were outraged at what they saw as a slap on the wrist -- they wanted Howerd's license revoked entirely -- so they appealed to Ed Thomas, their councilman, as well as to councilwoman-at-large Susan Barnes-Gelt, who wrote a letter to the excise and licenses director on their behalf.

On April 1, 1997, the liquor store was sold to Kyung Lee, who renamed it Bonanza Liquors. (She's never installed a sign outside to indicate the store's new moniker, however.) Despite the change in ownership, problems persisted. On March 7, 2000, Bonanza was cited for selling to minors; after a police sting on October 21, 2000, it received another citation for the same infraction. The store has since been cited twice more for selling to underage customers -- on December 7, 2001, and on January 26, 2002.

Not only have the neighbors had enough of Bonanza's legal problems, they also dislike the unsavory crowd that the store draws. "They sell the forties, the airline shooters and the fortified wines, like Mad Dog," Anderson says. "It attracts the transients and the drug dealers, who wander around the neighborhood drunk."

The Unsinkables before their first crime-fighting walk of the year.
Anthony Camera
The Unsinkables before their first crime-fighting walk of the year.

Snake Pit's Oberbroeckling, however, characterizes the dispute with Bonanza as another example of elitist residents going after a business because they don't want certain types of people in their neighborhood. "I'm not going to defend Bonanza Liquors; it's been a mess over there for years," he says. "But these people just don't like their neighbors -- they're against the neighborhood they claim to represent. I mean, do you think any of Bonanza's customers drive to this little liquor store in Capitol Hill from somewhere else in Denver? No, it's the people who live here who buy there."

Peter Yoon, a friend and spokesman for Lee, who doesn't speak English, says the Unsinkables are using Bonanza Liquors as a scapegoat for societal problems that a group of neighbors just can't fix. "We feel it's unfair. We've agreed to almost their whole list of changes, and yet they're still not happy. We're at their beck and call. We have to play by their rules," Yoon says. "Unless you move all of those people out of the area, there's no way to solve these problems."

For each of its legal violations, Bonanza has had to pay a fine or undergo a temporary suspension of its liquor license; in the past, the neighbors agreed not to create a stink if Lee would try to resolve the problems. At an April meeting with the Unsinkables, she offered to make some concessions, such as hiring a security guard and not selling malt liquor, single cans of beer, forty-ounce bottles of beer or fortified wine. But since Lee wouldn't agree to close at 10 p.m., the neighbors voted unanimously to pressure the city to revoke Lee's liquor license.

Even so, Lee stopped selling the low-end alcohol, and she posted a sign on the counter informing customers of the change; profits have dropped by 30 percent as a result, Yoon says. Lee was willing to suffer that loss in order to appease the neighbors, he explains, but she wasn't willing to close at 10 p.m. "About 20 percent of our business comes between 10 p.m. and midnight," Yoon says. "If we change our hours, we might as well close."

That's exactly what the neighbors would like.

"If Bonanza catered to people in the neighborhood, we'd support them," Anderson says. "Most people I've talked to in the neighborhood don't drink forties or airline shooters."

A week after the Unsinkables voted in favor of revocation, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN), the organization representing all of Capitol Hill -- whose boundaries span the central core of Denver, from First to 22nd Avenues and Broadway to Colorado Boulevard -- voted unanimously to support the revocation of Bonanza's license. Together, CHUN and the Unsinkables solicited the support of councilman Thomas and Erin Lange, an advocate on the Capitol Hill Community Justice Council, which was established by the Denver District Attorney's office three years ago to address neighborhood issues.

All of them attended an April 25 "show cause" hearing in which penalties for the January violation were to be discussed. As the hearing started, Bonanza's attorney, Steve Lee (no relation to Kyung Lee), and assistant city attorney Kory Nelson introduced a stipulation that both parties had agreed to. The deal proposed that, for the January infraction, Bonanza be granted a one-year reprieve so long as it didn't commit any further violations during that time, hired a security guard, didn't sell certain kinds of alcohol, provided training for employees, installed video cameras and didn't open before 9 a.m. (The store normally opens at 8 a.m.) If Bonanza failed to honor any of those conditions in the next year, Lee would agree to close her store for sixty days.

The stipulation blindsided the neighbors, who'd made it clear that those terms were unacceptable. Usually, the public isn't allowed to provide input at show-cause hearings (unlike hearings for new liquor-license applicants or renewal hearings for existing license holders), but the group persuaded hearing officer Terry Tomsick to allow its testimony. It's even more unorthodox for a city councilmember to speak, but Thomas did so anyway.

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