USC and the liquor license debate

Watering holes, developments lead to student rush downtown

Residents say a 1,400 percent increase of liquor licenses downtown might hurt the area.

By: Nicole Dailo and Jean Guerrero

Posted: 11/1/07

USC students fed up with the early curfew on The Row and never-ending line at the 901 Bar & Grill are turning to an influx of bars downtown. But some are concerned by an increase in approved liquor licenses and a development boom in the area feel more like a hangover than added fun.

More than 40 bars and restaurants hold liquor licenses in the Historic Core - a 1,400 percent increase according to state regulations, the Los Angeles Downtown News recently reported.

The area has evolved rapidly since 1998, when the city adopted an adaptive-reuse ordinance allowing vacant office buildings to be rezoned into residential lots.

Amenities such as restaurants, dry cleaners and hair salons followed as the area became more residential. Kevin Keller, a city planner with the L.A. City Planning Department and president of the L.A. chapter of the American Planning Association, said this transition supplemented the demand for clubs and bars in the area.

The influx of downtown haunts, however, is unwelcome to some residents. The area's development is controversial because of a burgeoning over-concentration of alcohol retailers in close proximity to Skid Row.

"We've got folks who are going through things in life that are very difficult, and having access to alcohol could add trials and tribulations," said Ginny-Marie Case, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Council.

Despite such concerns, planning and construction of developments with liquor licenses has continued.

Earlier this month, the city overturned a previous decision by the zoning administration by approving conditional-use permits for the Santa Fe Lofts, a residential complex that included plans for a street-level bar, said Kate Bartolo, who worked for seven years with the Los Angeles-based real estate company backing the project.

She said the zoning administration was concerned for the homeless on Skid Row because of the "overwhelming temptation" that might arise from new liquor establishments.

Bartolo said the developments will actually benefit homeless people, who are oftentimes the victims of attacks, because many instances of violence could be avoided by enlivening the area's storefronts.

Case expressed mixed feelings about focusing on the perceived problem of too many liquor licenses and bars.

"For all the folks who want to complain about too many liquor licenses, there are bigger issues here," Case said. "There isn't enough affordable housing. This neighborhood has been ignored for many years."


Some students said the prospect of a night out downtown raises safety concerns. Despite rapid growth, many feel the area remains unsafe to frequent late at night.

In spring 2004, a USC junior was shot and killed after being dropped off at a gas station two miles away from his downtown apartment. The student, Maxwell Hazlett, had asked his friends to let him walk so he could look for an open liquor store on the way home, the Daily Trojan reported in 2004.

Charles Hockenbury, a junior majoring in political science, said the consequences of reviving downtown must be calculated before problems arise, because partygoers will give these issues little thought.

"If a place pops up downtown, [students] assume that work has gone into making sure it's a safe and viable option," he said.

Adrian Santos, a junior majoring in public relations, said he thinks downtown is a lot safer than the area around campus.

Since 2006, there has been a 28 percent decrease in violent crimes around the Historic Core, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Throughout the city, there has been an 8 percent decrease within the last year.

Some students said they believe the use of common sense usually suffices in avoiding danger.

"If I'm with a group of people, then I feel safe," said Janet Kim, a second-year graduate student in occupational therapy.

Clara Irazabal, assistant professor of urban planning and design, said increasing activity downtown at night might actually make the area more safe.

"The most effective way to make a district safe is to plan for people to be there at all times. This is safer than security cameras - people make places safe," Irazabal said.

Keller said more careful review of individual cases should suffice in keeping the area safe.

"Patrols, security, training and those kinds of regulations will be placed on each business," he said.

Future hot spot

Some downtown residents and workers said they are optimistic about the young, hip feel development is bringing to the historically business-oriented area.

"People in the area are responding really well to the new development. You can sense that downtown finally has a true feel to it," said an employee at Lost Souls Café in the Historic Core.

With the grand opening of the 7,100-seat Nokia Theater earlier this month and its accompanying Central Plaza, downtown seems to be morphing into a youth-friendly hot spot.

By October 2008, the L.A. Live project plans to unveil a conglomeration of new enterprises, including a broadcasting facility and restaurant along with the ESPN's West Coast headquarters, up to 14 new restaurants, two night clubs and the Grammy Museum, Keller said.

With these new developments that cater to young adults, some say downtown will become an even bigger party spot.

Corey Hall, a senior majoring in business administration, said students are going to start heading downtown for the social scene.

"I think the revitalization of downtown is just going to continue the trend that's already started," he said.

But Tom Aldrich, a senior majoring in business administration, said he thinks students will not go downtown yet because "it's so dirty" and because of the popularity of the 9-0 near campus.

"It's going to take a while, and it depends on whether or not [venues] are strict on [checking proof of age]," he said.

Hockenbury said that while staying close to campus is more convenient for students, the perceived Department of Public Safety crackdown on Thursday-night parties on The Row and the administration's attempt to steer USC away from its party-school reputation is driving students out of North University Park and toward downtown's bright lights.

"Naturally, the first place [students] go is The Row," he said. "But [the crackdown has] been forcing people to supplement their social activity, … and downtown is a short cab ride away."

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