The Santa Ana City Council Monday night approved an ordinance that gives the city’s alcohol sales and entertainment rules a makeover but tabled the more controversial provisions that would have allowed more bars to open and later hours for businesses focused on night life.

According to city staff and agenda reports, new rules include:

  • A new entertainment permit.
  • Public hearings for conditional use permits sent directly to the Planning Commission, thus eliminating the requirement for zoning administrator approval.
  • Elimination of requirements for site plan review applications.
  • Reduction of the size of stores exempt from an alcohol sales overconcentration rule from 20,000 to 10,000 square feet.
  • A standard set of conditions so “everybody plays by the same rules.”

The revision is the culmination of nearly two years of staff work and many meetings with groups to update old and vague rules that, in the case of “dance halls,” date back to 1957. The push for change is part of the recent revival in Santa Ana’s downtown night life scene.

But it has not been without controversy and is part of the larger battle over gentrification in the downtown corridor and the at times bitter debate over the identity and direction of the city.

New business owners and a growing influx of young, downtown residents say that Santa Ana, with more than 300,000 residents, is ready to become a large and eclectic city that blends its Latino heritage with a lively and edgy downtown like those in other large cities.

“We’re finally reaching the point where the downtown is an 18-hour place,” said James Kendrick, owner of a downtown magazine and newspaper store called Rags. “You’re creating a real destination place.”

But many Latino residents have said they want a family-friendly city focused on health and youth programs. They’ve said they’re anxious about the proliferation of alcohol and a party culture, fearing the impacts of an urban night-crawling scene on teenagers already grappling with a lack of services and menacing gangs.

“It’s bad for our future and for our children to have more bars open,” said resident Juan Carlos, member of an activist coalition that has been pushing for transparency at City Hall. “Santa Ana should be a city without alcohol.”

City officials during the long amendment process satisfied many of the complaints of restaurants, bars and concert venues by tweaking proposed changes.

For example, a proposal to recover the cost of police calls for businesses that violate their conditions was struck, because some said “the methodology was too vague and would penalize businesses for making legitimate calls to the police,” a staff report explains.

City staff’s proposed ordinance addressed “all of the issues raised by the businesses community. And I do mean that,” said Planning Director Jay Trevino.

However, city leaders were not ready to adopt changes to the ordinance favored by new downtown businesses and proposed by Councilman David Benavides at the council’s Public Safety Committee meeting last month.

Those changes included allowing new bars so long as they are not within 500 feet of a children’s school, park or another bar. Benavides changed this recommendation at Monday’s council meeting to be restricted only to downtown and reducing the distance rule to 250 feet.

Also, the Public Safety Committee recommended deleting the rule that restaurants serving alcohol must also serve food. And the committee recommended that entertainment be allowed until 4 a.m. as long as serving alcohol ends by 2 a.m.

“What I’m still having a little bit of heartburn on is the bar issue,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero.

Lowering the distance rule and eliminating the food requirement would allow new bars in the downtown and reverse an effort in the 1980s to toughen rules on liquor licenses and close downtown bars seen as causing crime.

Supporters of those recommendations said that new businesses would be classier, like a proposed wine and cheese bar. The proposed 4 a.m. rule would actually be safer, because there wouldn’t be a flood of patrons onto the streets at 2 a.m. and would allow those who have been drinking to have a meal and time to sober up, supporters said.

But opponents said they feared that having entertainment businesses open until 4 a.m. would cause public safety problems. Councilwoman Michele Martinez noted that during the late night hours the city has fewer  than 20 police officers on patrol and raised concerns that later bar hours would limit their ability to respond to calls in other areas.

Martinez pointed to a homicide three years ago at the Artists Village parking structure as an example of what can happen with too much partying and too few police.

“We want to set good, sound policy, but we want to do it in a fashion that makes sense,” Martinez said. “Would it make sense for our Police Department?”

Ultimately the council decided to approve the ordinance without the public safety committee recommendations and table that discussion for a future meeting.

The ordinance will require a second approval at the next council meeting before it takes effect.

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