Neighborhood Watch and Wait
Carole Jensen has two words of advice for neighborhoods trying to get disruptive bars to settle down: Be patient. "It's a long, involved endeavor," she says. "I think these things always get resolved eventually. But it's a slow process, so unbelievably slow. It has been interesting, however. Not to mention very, very frustrating."
Jensen moved into the Westwood community on the west edge of Denver two years ago and has been fighting with MGM's Restaurant and Lounge--whose location, at 4801 Morrison Street, is only a couple hundred feet from her home--ever since. But Jensen's had it relatively easy: Some of her neighbors have been battling with MGM's owner, Marco Martinez, for over five years.
Finally, though, residents who live in MGM's neighborhood--an area that includes Morrison Road, Wolff Street and Kentucky Avenue--feel that their efforts have been rewarded. Last week the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses worked out an agreement with Martinez that addresses the neighbors' concerns about loud music, rowdy patrons, garbage, and cars cruising down residential streets in the wee hours. To prevent such problems, Martinez must erect a fence around his property, hire two security officers each night, keep the bar door closed--even during the hot summer months, when residents say the music is loudest--and plant trees to further block sound.
Although Martinez agreed to the plan, he isn't pleased about spending more money. "I feel like I've done everything I could to make this neighborhood happy," he says. "It has cost me so much already, with the improvements they made me make to the building and the lawyers and everything. I just hope this makes them happy." In order to comply with the stipulations, he adds, he'll have to turn MGM's back into a restaurant, which it was before his dance club became such a hit. "You think you get to this point in your life," he says, "where the evidence of success means you don't have to work so hard, and then you have to go back in and work hard again to make a living."
Jensen can sympathize--to a point. "I do feel bad for Marco, because it shouldn't have had to come to this," she says. "If he had just done these things when we first asked him to, it wouldn't have gotten so ugly."
The ugliness started in 1993, when a neighbor complained to Excise and Licenses that music coming from the bar was loud enough to keep him awake until 2 a.m. Within a few months, the department had collected eleven more complaints about the same thing and had scheduled a show-cause hearing where MGM's had to defend its right to continue operations. And continue it did, despite the fact that the Westwood Neighborhood Association sued MGM's in late 1997 and District 4 detectives turned the bar in to the Denver Police Department's Public Nuisance Abatement unit.
Over the years the neighbors' complaints have expanded to include vandalism and political cronyism; Martinez, in turn, accuses the residents of being racist. The campaign against MGM's, he claims, is a massive conspiracy between the neighborhood and city agencies to "put the brown man out of business." Not only are several of the most vocal neighbors--all of whom are of Anglo descent--prejudiced against Hispanics, he says, but Beth McCann, director of Excise and Licenses, has a "history of problems with minorities." (McCann firmly refutes that accusation.)
Many of MGM's less-vocal neighbors say they've been afraid to complain about Martinez for fear that his patrons will retaliate by smashing their windows, urinating on their lawns and screaming obscenities at their houses. "Some of us have signed petitions supporting MGM's because we don't want to put our kids at risk," says one father who strongly opposed the bar until an MGM's customer threatened him on the street. "Can you imagine what it's like having to lie awake at night listening to drunk people passing by your house and wonder if they're going to throw a brick through your window?" And some neighbors say they feel they're not getting the kind of response they'd like to their complaints because Martinez's son, Marco Martinez Jr., is a police officer in District 4, an accusation District 4 captain Rudy Sandoval says is "ridiculous."
Regardless, Jan Marie Belle, director of the Southwest Improvement Council, isn't afraid to speak up. Belle, who's been very active in several battles with local bars, has been working at the SWIC community center for the past ten years. A Ruby Hill resident who previously lived in Westwood for 36 years, Belle met with Martinez many times to try to work out solutions to the problems the bar created in the neighborhood. "But I told Marco, the way he's been with his neighbors, it's like the tree that SWIC planted in front of his bar a few years ago," she says. "I told him, 'Marco, you didn't water that tree, and the tree died.' And he said, 'I was supposed to water the tree?' That's the problem with Marco--he doesn't water the trees. He doesn't take care of what needs to be taken care of so things can improve."
And over the past several years, Belle adds, MGM's patrons have been getting worse, not better. "Marco should look into his past, because something really changed with his clientele," she says. "I don't know for sure if this is the case, but I suspect that MGM's has become known as a place where people can misbehave and get away with it, because I don't hear about this many complaints against patrons at other area bars."
Not that there haven't been other problem bars--or problem neighborhoods. The fight continues at La Bonita in West Highland (see page 23), as well as at Sagitario, 1750 West Mississippi Avenue, which is trying to move into a larger space across the street. Several neighborhoods have managed to shut down bars--or keep them from opening in the first place. According to records at Excise and Licenses, the same group fighting MGM's persuaded Excise and Licenses to deny a license to Angel's, at the corner of Florida Avenue and South Federal Boulevard. Another group has successfully fought against granting a liquor license to Dottie's Social Club, at 2800 Fairfax Street ("Dry Society," November 20, 1997). MacSanchez's renewal license for 1705 Federal Boulevard was denied, and many other places received either fines or temporary suspensions in part because of neighborhood complaints.
That MGM's has been a problem bar is seemingly acknowledged by everyone but Martinez, and the neighbors he listed as his supporters did not return phone calls from Westword. "Yeah, maybe a few times we were too loud," Martinez admits. "But we're no worse than any other bar in this city."
The detectives with the Public Nuisance Abatement unit disagree. That unit, an arm of the Denver Police Department that was created in January 1997 with the passing of the city's Public Nuisance Abatement ordinance, steps in when property owners have violated public-disturbance laws at least twice. Of the 526 cases the unit handled in 1997, according to Lieutenant David Bricker, only a handful involved bars. "Most of the time we're dealing with vehicles or with properties that have been operating as crack houses," he says. "To go in on a bar, we're looking at a heads up from detectives who have been called to the place repeatedly, or the neighborhood finally gets sick enough of the fight and they turn to us."
Some of the violations that can bring a bar to the unit's attention are prostitution, receipt of stolen goods and selling liquor to underage or visibly intoxicated persons. MGM's infractions, as listed by Detective Gerard Blea in a letter to Martinez, were three instances of disturbing the peace and one aggravated assault, all of which occurred in 1997. Martinez maintains that the aggravated assault did not take place on his property (he argues that it was a drive-by shooting across the street); Blea says the unit is still investigating the incident. "At this point, it seems likely that Marco is right, so we won't include that if that's the case," Blea says. As for the three disturbing-the-peace complaints, Martinez says they were made by neighbors who dislike Hispanics--a charge that the complainants, Theresa Clark and Anthony Grosso, vehemently deny.
"How do you prove you're not racist?" asks Jensen. "It's one of those accusations that is almost impossible to fight against."
Excise and Licenses director McCann agrees. "I don't even know who the owners of bars are or what their ethnic background is when complaints come in," she says. "My job is to look into the complaints, which I do regardless of where the bar is, who owns it and who's making the complaints." The accusations of racism are absurd, adds Helen Gonzales, assistant director of Excise and Licenses. "I'm Hispanic, and a lot of the time, I'm the one telling Beth that we need to do something about problem bars," she says. "I don't care what race the owners are; I believe residents have a right to a peaceful existence."
According to records at Excise and Licenses, of the more than 300 bars and restaurants that violated liquor-license or related laws over the past thirteen years--the length of time Martinez has owned MGM's--only 10 percent were owned by Hispanics. And the majority of the hearings involving Hispanic-owned bars took place before McCann joined the department in September 1995. In fact, McCann says, the most hotly contested disputes have been with Anglo-owned bars. "One of the most intense hearings we've done in the past few years was with Govnr's Park," she adds. "That was a knock-down-drag-out battle where the owners really thought I had something personal going on, which is often the accusation I have to deal with. It's hard to make them understand that I am required to investigate when neighborhoods have a complaint."
Last April McCann even added a step between the time the department receives a neighborhood complaint and when it schedules a hearing. Before taking the more drastic measure, the "mediation" step requires that Excise and Licenses bring all involved parties together to try to work out a resolution. "It's hard on licensees to have to come in and do a formal hearing," McCann explains. "And it's hard on us, from a resources and time standpoint. Hearings are very involved processes, and if we can avoid having to go that route, we will." During mediation, a hearing officer attempts to hammer out a written agreement that both parties will sign. Once an agreement is reached and is approved by McCann, it becomes a contract that can be enforced at the department's discretion.
According to the agreement reached last week in MGM's case, Martinez will be held liable for any infractions that arise from his noncompliance with the terms of the contract. (The nuisance-abatement case is not affected by this agreement; sometime in the next few months, the DPD unit will review the steps Martinez has taken to comply with its demands, which include installing surveillance cameras outside the bar and lighting in the parking lot.)
In the meantime, the neighborhood group that filed suit late last year against MGM's is postponing further legal action pending Martinez's full compliance with the Excise and Licenses agreement. "The stipulations in the contract are all we've ever wanted from Marco," says Jensen. "Despite his claims, we've never wanted him to close down or lose his business. At one point, we thought the only way we were going to get any peace and quiet was if he lost his cabaret license, but that's really not what we're asking for. If Marco does the things he's supposed to in this agreement and things improve, he'll never hear another word from us."
Martinez doesn't believe it. "But what choice do I have?" he asks. "All I want to know is, if this whole thing hasn't been racially motivated, then why did the Jensens spend so much time trying to drive me out of business?"
For Jensen, a stay-at-home mom with seven children who says she and her husband moved from Evergreen to Westwood because they wanted their kids to experience cultural diversity, the whole experience has been an intensive civics lesson. "If I had it to do all over again, I'd be more informed from the start," she says. "There are so many rules, and people have so many rights that they don't even know about. I feel like I could write a book on how neighborhoods can run a successful campaign against a problem bar."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.