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Alcohol Permit Process Eases for Downtown Quick-Service Restaurants

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday February 04, 2010 - 08:27:00 AM

If the Berkeley City Council signs off on a recommendation made by the Planning Commission last week, then some quick-service restaurants may soon be able to avoid a cumbersome alcohol permitting process. 

Although the council modified the city’s zoning ordinance last year to expedite permits for certain businesses—one of the changes will allow full-service restaurants to get administrative use permits, if they want to sell beer and wine, instead of having to apply for a use permit or go through a public hearing—it did not alter the requirements for quick-service establishments. 

Quick-service businesses then lobbied councilmembers to amend the ordinance to help them get over-the-counter alcohol permits as well. The council relented, asking the Planning Commission to chime in. 

Though the City Council had initially included Telegraph Avenue, the Planning Commission, in its final vote, limited the proposed zoning amendments to downtown establishments located more than 200 feet away from a residential zone.  

The council is scheduled to vote on the Planning Commission’s advice March 9. 

City Associate Planner Jordan Harrison said the commission excluded Telegraph because the 200-foot buffer from residential districts—within which a use permit would be required instead of the proposed administrative use permit—covered almost all of it. 

The UC Berkeley campus is also considered a residential district. 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who introduced the item at the Oct. 27 City Council meeting along with Councilmember Laurie Capitelli and Mayor Tom Bates, said he would investigate whether parts of Telegraph and especially businesses along Oxford Street could be included in the proposal. 

Arreguin said that a report from the city’s Economic Development Manager, Michael Caplan, last February outlining a large number of ground-floor vacancies—the downtown had a commercial vacancy rate of 15 percent for the first quarter of 2009—indicated that the city was receiving less sales and business tax revenue, a loss that was hampering funding of important city services. 

“With a difficult economy, a lot of restaurants are struggling,” Arreguin said. “Although a lot of them are downtown and in close proximity to the arts district, certain people will not visit them because they are not selling beer and wine. One of the ways to adapt to the current economic situation is to get a broader clientele. We are not allowing restaurants to become bars—we just want to ensure businesses have an option.” 

Although quick-service establishments were happy with the Planning Commission’s recommendation, the news did not sit well with the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition. 

Some of its members showed up at the Planning Commission hearings last month warning that the amendments could have dire consequences to public safety, health and quality of life. 

“Having quick-service restaurants serve alcohol will open the door for national chains like Pizza Hut to sell alcohol,” BAPAC member Fried Whittman told the commission. “Seeking to rely on more alcohol sales is inviting more problems.” 

Edward Kikimoto, executive director of the Alcohol Policy Network in Oakland, said that although a “single business selling alcohol may not pose as much of a threat, a whole concentration of businesses offering alcohol” was an entirely different scenario. 

“It’s almost impossible to remove land use once it’s established,” Kikimoto said at a meeting. 

Arreguin said that AUPs could be appealed to the zoning board. 

“It’s not like we are not allowing any public review,” he said. 

He added that the amendments would explicitly require businesses to ask for permits from the city if they wanted to sell alcohol to customers for off-site consumption. 

Berkeley’s Planning Manager, Deborah Sanderson, told the commission that most alcohol-related problems were generated by liquor stores and not restaurants. 

Downtown quick-service restaurants such as Amanda’s and Bobby G’s argued that the move would help restaurants. 

“I take offense to anyone calling my business an alcohol outlet,” said Natalie Kniess of Bistro Liaison, responding to criticism. “People come for the culture and stay for the food,” she said, echoing a new slogan of the city tourist bureau. 

Robert Gaustad, who owns Bobby G’s, said that it had taken him eight months and nearly $5,000 to start selling beer and wine at his restaurant. 

“And it almost killed us,” he said. “So many months and so many thousands of dollars, and then it was approved in two minutes on consent calendar.” 

A majority of the planning commissioners agreed that a revised ordinance was long overdue. 

“I think the use permit process takes much too long and is too expensive for small businesses and small property owners,” said Planning Commissioner Teresa Clarke. “Too many use permits require a full public hearing even when the project meets the zoning standards and uses for the district. The full public hearing for simple projects is a waste of time, money, and city resources and often contributes to a lot of unnecessary frustration and negativity. How can we expect businesses to survive much less thrive in Berkeley when our city zoning ordinance puts them through such a ridiculously cumbersome process?” 

Planning Commissioner Jim Novosel said that he doubted that the change would foster public drinking problems. 

“Even though downtown Berkeley already has a fair number of restaurants, I would like to see a jump, as it would further the city’s role as a regional urban entertainment center, as a great place to come and promenade and as a place to foster other retail businesses,” Novosel said.