Young, hip and attractive is not the way crowds that show up to community-group meetings are usually described. But last week the Greater North Park Community Planning Committee, an advisory group that weighs in on land-use decisions, was voting on whether to grant Bluefoot Bar & Lounge—a recent addition to the growing collection of establishments on 30th Street near the North Park/South Park border—a special permit to stay open late and serve hard liquor, over the objections of some local residents. A yes vote meant Bluefoot could keep its liquor license and stay open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. A no vote meant the bar would have to close at midnight every night, serve beer and wine only, and possibly spell the end of Bluefoot altogether. Apparently, the way to politicize San Diego's young adults is to threaten their favorite bar.
In some respects, the friction between Bluefoot and its neighbors is just the latest in a series of battles between longtime residents and bar and restaurant owners who are fleeing the high rents of downtown for the densely populated neighborhoods that surround Balboa Park.
“Neighborhoods want vibrant business communities, but they don't want to impact the residential communities,” said City Councilmember Toni Atkins, whose district includes North Park.
But Bluefoot's tale is about more than disgruntled neighbors. The trouble the bar finds itself in involves, too, government incompetence and fouled-up public meetings, complicated by a North Park resident who likes his peace and quiet and knows his way around city regulations better, it seems, than the city does.
Cuong Nguyen and business partner Adam Cook invested in real estate for years before they became bar owners, purchasing the property that used to be dark-and-dingy leather bar Wolf's.
“I was driving by this corner and saw the bar, and I thought, This would be a great business opportunity,” Nguyen said. “I went in and bought the place almost on the spot.”
Nguyen and Cook renovated the space and changed the name, and Bluefoot joined spots like The Linkery and Lefty's in a newly energized corner of the city. The bar provided space for local bands, DJs and performance art and turned its TVs to popular sporting events like the 2006 World Cup. For six months after it opened, Bluefoot operated under the beer-and-wine license it inherited from its predecessor and stayed open until 2 a.m. every night. Nguyen and Cook figured they could improve their business by upgrading to a full liquor license, but the city of San Diego has asked the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to issue licenses only to establishments that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from food. ABC and the city do, however, allow bar owners to purchase already-existing licenses, so for $100,000 Bluefoot bought rights to a full liquor license on the open market. The owners were excited.
Neighbors noticed how much more popular Bluefoot was than its predecessor, and they started to complain. Patrons of Bluefoot—and other nearby restaurants—often park along the quiet residential streets nearby, and residents, some of whom have lived there for 40 years, say they're being awoken by noisy night owls traipsing back to their cars after last call.
“The two main issues are parking and noise, which are very intricately woven together,” said Elizabeth Studebaker, a member of the North Park planning committee and the director of the North Park Business Improvement District. “I actually watched someone walk into a neighbor's yard and pee on the lawn,” said Dana Hosseini, a biotech worker who lives near Bluefoot.
Medium-sized, thin and with a shaved head, Hosseini doesn't come off as a neighborhood rabble-rouser, yet he has become the de facto point person for folks who miss quieter days. When he received a letter from Bluefoot alerting him to the upcoming license change (ABC requires bars to send letters to nearby residents), Hosseini filed an official objection, which meant he and Nguyen and Cook would have to appear before an administrative judge. Hosseini mustered his neighbors to join him, and en masse they persuaded the judge to limit the license: The bar could stay open past midnight only on Friday and Saturday, and it had to hire a security guard. Unhappy but still in business, Nguyen and Cook got back to work.
The uneasy truce lasted until a one-time security guard for Bluefoot, Leighton Hollingsworth, saw a business opportunity of his own.
“People asked me where to eat. They'd have to get in their cars and go to Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru [just across Upas Street] or go somewhere else,” he told CityBeat.
Tall, wiry, bearded and sporting a pony tail, Leighton has the low voice of a man who's spent a lot of nights up late. He speaks with pride about leasing the space once occupied by a leather emporium right next to Bluefoot and the enormous labor he put into renovating it into a late-night burger joint. Before he opened, he hung a sign announcing the Commonwealth Café, hours of operation from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“Then this guy from Code Compliance comes in one day and tells me I can't do that,” he said. “I have to admit, I'm kind of ignorant about the rules on this stuff.”
The officer had been sent by Hosseini, who saw the sign and feared the arrival of an even-later crowd of loud-voiced wanderers. Hosseini researched local regulations and discovered that the block was zoned to allow businesses to remain open only until midnight and serve just beer and wine. Hosseini contacted the city's Department of Development Services (DSD) to confirm his research, and two separate officials agreed with him. But Hosseini also realized that someone in the city had screwed up when Bluefoot was allowed to get a full liquor license.
By rule, ABC must get a letter of approval from the city before it grants a license. The city is supposed to check with the police, to make sure the neighborhood is safe, and comply with zoning regulations. But the DSD official who checked Bluefoot's permit, Marsha Kollins, had misread the zoning when she signed the letter. When Hosseini brought the mistake to her attention, she insisted, in an e-mail, that she'd read the rules correctly. Ultimately, Hosseini had to recruit Councilmember Atkins to get the city to move, and, in a follow-up e-mail, Kollins eventually acknowledged her mistake. (Kollins did not respond to a call for comment.) Now Hosseini wanted ABC to revoke Bluefoot's license.
The boys of Bluefoot felt attacked.
“It became a death match for us,” Nguyen said.
A midnight closing time, he explained, meant last call at 11:30. Patrons wouldn't bother to travel to his bar if their night had to end so young.
ABC and Atkins decided that Bluefoot could solve the problem by getting a Neighborhood Use Permit (NUP) from its local planning committee. This way, residents could weigh in on the issue.
Or such was the plan. Before the matter could come before the full planning committee, it had to be heard by a subcommittee. Subcommittee member Vicki Granowitz said 150 people showed up.
“We were all just—it had never happened before,” she told CityBeat.
Overwhelmed by the size of the audience, the meeting, by most accounts, was a disaster. Granowitz, who also chairs the larger committee, detailed the ways that subcommittee chairman Vernon Franck violated the Brown Act, the law that governs how public meetings are run in California: He allowed Bluefoot's owners to sit at the table and stay there while opposition was speaking; he didn't allow the opposition equal time to present its case; and he didn't reveal that he was a member of the Sushi Performance and Visual Art board of directors (Sushi stages shows at Bluefoot).
“At one point I asked him if he knew what an NUP was,” Hosseini said. “And he said, ‘We don't need to worry about that here.'” Granowitz was equally shocked by the remark.
Franck remains proud of the way he ran the meeting. “I was very cognizant that there was an overwhelming number of people for the bar compared to the minority opposition,” he said. “So I did my best to seek them out for comment so everyone could hear their comment.”
The subcommittee approved Bluefoot's permit, but with some caveats, like additional security guards. The neighbors were incensed. Hosseini and others complained to the San Diego Department of Planning and Land Use, which sent a planner, Marlon Pangilinan, to the next meeting of the full Greater North Park Community Planning Committee. Pangilinan delivered a blistering public rebuke to Franck and the committee. Franck stormed out and later resigned. (He told CityBeat he did “not want to be some sort of regulatory cop.”)
Under Pangilnan's supervision, Granowitz ran a meeting in which both sides got equal time, and, ultimately, Bluefoot won unanimous approval. Technically, the matter must still go before a city hearing officer, but typically the city goes with the committee's recommendation.
But the fight isn't over. Nguyen told CityBeat that he's waiting for the final license determination, but he does hope to improve his relationship with the neighborhood. He now employs five security guards, including a neighborhood rover, to quiet patrons during busy periods.
Hosseini has already met once with Bluefoot's attorney to reach a compromise, but he has other remedies prepared. “I've got signatures from all these blocks,” he said, gesturing around the neighborhood, pointing down Upas, Myrtle and 29th streets. “We're going to get this made into resident-only parking.”
Councilmember Atkins regrets the city's bungling on the technical issues, but she's generally pleased with how the situation is resolving itself.
“It's an area in transition,” she said. “I think the process pretty much works. It allows communities to be part of the discussion, to have a voice. There's a win-win here.”
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