Facing pressure from bar owners who are finding more success in a revitalized downtown district, Santa Ana officials are considering revising decades-old regulations on alcohol sales in the city.

Under the current regulations, no new bar is allowed to open, and existing bars can’t expand. New grocery stores and other businesses smaller than 20,000 sq. ft. that want to sell alcohol qualify only under certain conditions.

The rules go back to 1988, when city leaders began working to cleanup a downtown area that had become a haven for seedy bars. The city’s nightclub definition hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.

But as downtown Santa Ana has continued its transformation from a magnet for dive bars to a gentrified district that attracts young and affluent people, pressure has increased to update these laws.

City staff brought the matter before the Planning Commission last week to test whether there is a desire among the city’s commissioners to ease the regulations.

“We find ourselves frankly at odds with business owners who say it’s too hard to open a new business,” said Planning Director Jay Trevino.

Some community leaders fear that a loosening of the regulations will lead to more underage drinking and gang activity.

Alcohol sales have also been an issue at the Yost Theater, which has become a popular DJ and music show venue on heavily Latino Fourth Street. Local Latino leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the new venue.

Many Latinos see the transformation of downtown into a trendy, nighttime and entertainment spot as the purging of a family-friendly Latino destination. New restaurateurs and other property owners say they only want to diversify downtown to appeal to everybody.

Two new bars have managed to open in Artists Village, which has become a popular nighttime destination downtown. Proof Bar opened by way of a special exemption to the law, and The Copper Door had its alcohol license grandfathered from previous ownership.

But the city regulations have prevented those bars from expanding their operations. Joey Mendez, who owns the Proof Bar, wants to double his floor space, and according to Trevino, The Copper Door wants to expand sales to include hard liquor.

Mendez and other property owners and restaurateurs attended the Planning Commission meeting to support loosening regulations, arguing that the momentum toward a thriving downtown is threatened.

“The rebuilding process has taken place. People are coming down in droves,” Mendez said. “We run the risk of stagnating by not getting on board and letting this happen.”

Commissioners said they wanted to see a breakdown of the amount and types of crimes per each police district in the city. But determining whether those crimes were alcohol related is difficult, said police Cmdr. Ken Gominsky.

“If I go out to someone’s house and smell alcohol on the man’s breath, do I identify that as an alcohol related crime?” Gominsky said. “I can understand what you would like to have, but I don’t know how to give it to you.”

At least one set of statistics suggests that a city can allow proliferation of alcohol sales without dramatic increases in crime.

According to staffers, the cities with the lowest concentration of alcohol licenses are Huntington Beach and Fullerton – both have downtowns known to be rowdy. The city of Orange, which has a less raucous downtown scene, has the highest concentration of licenses, according to the staff.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the difference, Trevino said. Among other things, Fullerton issued permits to its downtown businesses without requirements to mitigate negative impacts.

Planning commissioners expressed differing viewpoints regarding the issue and debated the direction of the city’s downtown. Commissioner Sean Mill said that alcohol has a detrimental effect on the community and said he feared a return to the 1980s.

“I remember how it used to be downtown. I don’t want to see us loosening standards going back to the way things are — where we have young kids gallivanting in the downtown,” Mill said.

Commissioner James Gartner said he wanted Santa Ana’s downtown to look similar to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a 16.5-block district with a booming nightlife that includes restaurants and pubs.

“At the end of the day it would be very nice if downtown Santa Ana could resemble downtown San Diego,” Gartner said.

Ryan Chase, whose family owns a four-block portion of Fourth Street once called Fiesta Marketplace but renamed East End, said the goal of new business owners is to compete with spots like the Gaslamp Quarter. The city’s strict and ambiguous regulations were making that difficult, he said.

“The personality of a downtown goes a long way in defining a city,” Chase said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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