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BOTTLED RAGE

Congress Park residents were pleased with themselves and the system last fall after winning a legal battle to keep a liquor store from opening in their neighborhood. Their triumph, however, lasted only five months. They are now gearing up for an identical skirmish with the same would-be owner, whose most recent proposal calls for opening a liquor store at another address in the same building, just one foot from the site denied him in October.

The renewed attempt angers the neighbors, but it's the implication that bothers them more. "There are five legal addresses in that building," says Kasha Songer, who lives and works in the neighborhood. "I assume he'll keep applying until he gets what he wants."

The lawyer for the would-be liquor-store owner says his client "won't keep beating his head against the wall" if he loses this round. As if there hasn't been enough bashing already.

The brouhaha began late last summer when Alex Pappas, owner of Chef Zorba's, on East 12th Avenue between Elizabeth and Clayton in the heart of the Congress Park neighborhood, decided he wanted out of the restaurant business. The Pappas family declines to be interviewed, but the family's attorney, Glen Anstine, says Pappas turned over his shares in the cafe to his wife and made plans to open a liquor store in a large building he owns right across the alley from Zorba's. (The building is presently occupied by a used-furniture store, a dry cleaner, a beauty shop and a small grocery store.)

At the time, Anstine says, it seemed like a good idea. When Pappas requested three years ago that the city allow him to sell alcohol in his restaurant, the neighbors put up only a mild fuss, and he got the license. In addition, Capitol Heights Pharmacy & Liquors had given up its corner location at Clayton and 12th a year earlier to move eight blocks away, and Pappas believed that a liquor store would be "a benefit to the neighborhood," says Anstine.

That turned out to be a huge miscalculation.
"What happened," says neighborhood resident Paul Jackson, "is that when Capitol Heights left, we found out what a neighborhood would be like without a liquor store. There were no people throwing up on lawns, no one hassling people for money down on 12th. Neighbors wouldn't send their kids down there. Now they can. It has become a neighborhood."

So when locals learned of Pappas's proposal last fall, "there was quite a bit of anger," says another neighbor, Frank Martinez.

Residents began gathering on the Jacksons' front porch for strategy sessions. And with the blessing of the local neighborhood organization, Congress Park Neighbors Inc., Jackson and friends made plans to fight City Hall.

As neophytes, though, they made some big mistakes. The biggest was to enlist Pappas's competitors. That prompted charges by Pappas that the neighbors were simply being used by his competitors.

Jackson says that wasn't the case. He knew his group probably couldn't afford a lawyer, so he invited Alan Eisenberg, owner of Capitol Heights Pharmacy, to attend the porch meetings. Jackson rightly assumed that Eisenberg would oppose Pappas's application.

"We solicited the pharmacy to get involved," Jackson says, "and we encouraged them to donate money--well, I guess `beg' is the word. They were reticent."

When prodded, Eisenberg admits that, yes, he would prefer not to see more competition. "Sure," he says. "The more liquor stores in a given area, the greater the pie is cut."

Eisenberg anted up $1,300 for an attorney. A second liquor store tossed in a couple hundred. (Attorneys' fees would eventually run about $2,000, with the neighborhood group contributing the remainder.)

The residents' second mistake was a flier that misstated Pappas's intentions. In large print, the fliers asked the neighborhood to "Imagine a liquor store the size of an Argonaut on 12th Avenue!"

Pappas actually had proposed a much smaller store than the Colfax giant, but the flier fed into people's fears that once Pappas obtained a license, he would close each of the neighboring businesses one by one and take over the entire building.

The city council room was packed for the October 18 licensure hearing.
Scores of Pappas's supporters showed up, but they were vastly outnumbered. Due in part to the fliers and a vigorous door-to-door petition campaign, hundreds of opponents attended, armed with more than 800 signatures against the store.

It was a dogfight.
When city councilman Ed Thomas testified for the neighbors and said he'd previously canvassed the area and knew that homeowners did not want another liquor establishment, Anstine blasted the councilman for listening only to the "urban gentry."

Anstine appeared to score big--or at least frighten the neighbors--when he pointed out that Eisenberg's financial involvement was a conflict of interest.

Hearing officer Terry Tomsick took the pharmacy's involvement seriously, but in the end she was not swayed. In a recommendation to Department of Excise and Licenses director Balvino Chaves, Tomsick wrote, "Had the numbers not been so overwhelming against the applicant, the hearing officer also might have viewed the taint of the Capitol Heights Pharmacy contribution...with greater suspicion." She urged denial of the application.

Anstine's blistering appeal of the decision charged that the pharmacy "chose to disguise" its anti-competition maneuver by "masquerading behind Congress Park Neighbors Inc." And he contended that the "disinformation" on the flier "was created and spread about by a member of the same group, acting as a front man for Capitol Heights Pharmacy."

(Jackson denies that the pharmacy was behind the flier. "It was created by people in the neighborhood," he says. "Anstine tried his darnedest to find out who created it. He was inferring that we could be held accountable for libel and slander. So we all hushed up about it.")

Chaves upheld Tomsick's recommendation. And that should have been the end of it for quite a while--applicants who are turned down have to wait two years before they can reapply for a license at the same address.

"It's an understatement to say that we were pleased with the outcome," says Jackson. "We were totally relieved. It kind of reaffirmed our hope of the neighbors having some control of their destiny."

Right around Christmas, however, Jackson and others began hearing rumors that Pappas had only begun to fight. And sure enough, in February he applied for a liquor-store permit at 2600 East 12th Avenue, which--although it has its own door--is separated from 2602 by a wall the width of a two-by-four.

"There was lots of anger at this point," Jackson says. "Last year it was a businessman doing an inquiry about the wants and needs of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood clearly told him no. Then, six months later he says, `The heck with you. I'm doing it anyway.'"

But Anstine contends the previous fight hadn't been fair, saying, "I think if Mr. Pappas felt there had been a fair determination on the license and a protest that was not motivated by competitors or inflamed by propaganda as evidenced by that flier, or if he felt he'd been fairly denied, I think he could accept that. As for now, Mr. Pappas believes the denial was motivated by the pharmacy and not the neighbors."

Jackson and others contend that they are the ones who most want to keep the neighborhood free of liquor stores, and they've once again galvanized support. They've blanketed the area with 3,000 new fliers and have begun obtaining signatures against Pappas's new proposal. This time, Jackson says, the group is prepared to spend money for legal help but has two lawyers on line who have offered to represent them for free.

The renewed protest seems to have had some effect. Two weeks ago Pappas asked the liquor board to postpone his license hearing, and Anstine has agreed to meet with neighbors this week at Chef Zorba's. "We plan to tell him as gently and kindly as possible that this is not about Alan [Eisenberg]," Jackson says. "This is about our neighborhood."

The residents have another item on their agenda as well: They want the state legislature to establish a regulation stating that once a liquor license has been denied, an applicant cannot attempt to open another liquor-related establishment within a certain geographic area for a set period of time.

Despite the bad feelings the fight has engendered, Jackson says something good has come of it. "We're a quantum leap ahead of where we were last fall," he says. "We're organized and there's an esprit de corps. Alex has really done us a favor in terms of uniting the neighborhood.


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