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.
Proving the desire for an additional restaurant or bar is more nebulous. "Since the city can't deny a liquor license on speculative issues like parking or crime, it's hard to figure out what you can define as a desire," says Kelly Pietrs, an attorney who specializes in liquor-license cases and who represented the neighbors--her father among them.
But Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson says that while the city can't deny a license based on parking problems alone, residents can testify that they don't desire a new restaurant in their neighborhood because parking will be an issue, a subtle but important difference. "I don't think there's an advantage for [liquor-license] applicants. The state liquor code states that the applicant has the burden of proof," he says.
Sadwith believes the numbers tell the real story. Of the 42 liquor-license applications filed last year, none were denied and only one was withdrawn. And liquor-license approvals have far outweighed denials throughout the decade. In 1990, for example, 72 liquor license applications were submitted; of those, 67 were approved, two were denied and three were withdrawn, according to city records.
On June 7, the city granted Ziggie's Saloon, at 4923 West 38th Avenue, a dance and cabaret license despite protest from neighbors who complained about past criminal activity at the former biker bar. The excise and licenses department ruled that the hangout's previous problems didn't have any bearing on the current application and allowed Ziggie's to have dancing. In addition, the number of protesters was small, Nelson says.
The city also sided with a liquor license applicant in another case that involved neighborhood opposition. Two years ago, 761 people signed a petition against the Cherry Tomato's liquor-license application. The Park Hill residents who testified against it said traffic to and from the restaurant would pose a safety risk to children playing at a park across the street. They also claimed that the Cherry Tomato, at 4645 East 23rd Avenue, would ruin the character of the residential neighborhood and cause noise and parking problems. Excise and licenses director Beth McCann granted the license, noting that "the protestants' evidence, while credible, does not justify denial of the license." City records indicate that there were 1,049 in favor of the license.
But neighbors have prevailed in a couple of recent liquor-license disputes in which parking, litter and disturbance concerns came into play. In April, 333 residents of the East Montclair neighborhood signed a petition opposing Gigi's Lounge, a sports bar proposed for a vacant space at 1452 Uinta Street. Supporters of the lounge numbered 354. Last month, the license was denied.
On June 30, McCann overturned a hearing officer's recommendation to grant a cabaret license to Garbo's, at 266 South Downing Street. The club's owner sought the license so he could allow singing and piano and jazz music. Although the owner promised to end the music at midnight and to keep the doors closed during live entertainment, more than 500 Washington Park residents opposed the license; only 154 supported it. Those who testified against it argued that with the addition of music would come increased noise, traffic and people in the neighborhood late at night.
The hearing officer concluded that "while serious, some of the concerns raised by the witnesses were speculative and may not actually occur," adding that "the law is not crystal clear with regard to issues that may be raised in a liquor license hearing and that there is little case law addressing the types of concerns that should be considered in a cabaret hearing."
The city's cabaret ordinance allows more latitude in weighing neighborhood concerns than does the state law governing liquor licenses, and takes into account the "health, or welfare, or morals of the neighborhood." McCann denied the license, stating in her final order that "some of the issues that may be raised such as parking and traffic, even though speculative, have bearing on the issue of the desire of neighbors for a license."
More neighborhood strife is brewing now over Copacabana, a dance club proposed for the building once occupied by the Organ Grinder, a defunct pizza joint on Alameda Avenue and Zuni Street. Denver City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez says that in the ten years the Athmar Neighborhood Association has been working with the city and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to develop the Alameda Square Shopping Center, never has there been a desire from the community to have a dance club; there is already a teen hall, where dances are held, on the southeast corner of the shopping center. A liquor- and cabaret-license hearing was held last week, and Martinez is confident that the licenses will be denied.
The most enduring example of a neighborhood's success at preventing a business from getting a liquor license is Dottie's Social Club ("Dry Society," November 20, 1997). For sixteen years, Park Hill resident Dottie Grisby has been trying to turn her club into a place where older patrons can get together and drink. But every two years, when she is allowed to apply again, her request for a liquor license is shot down--neighbors band together and sign petitions opposing her club, claiming their need and desire for alcoholic beverages is already satisfied by other liquor stores and restaurants in the area. Last week, Grisby submitted her latest applications for a tavern liquor license and a cabaret license. The hearing officer is expected to make a decision by the end of the month.
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."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.