Mild In The Streets
Monterey is a pretty safe town, so why won't they allow a new dance club?
Thursday, March 26, 1998
But city planning commissioners were handed a different vision of Monterey''s downtown scene on Feb. 24, when they met to consider an application for a permit to open a new dance club at 559 Tyler Street. They were regaled with tales of inebriated tourists careening out of control outside the clubs and unruly lines of hormone-crazed youth trying to buy liquor on a Saturday night at the downtown Safeway just before the store''s 2am cut-off time, terrifying hapless store clerks in the process.
And real or not, those perceptions sank the proposed dance club.
Planning Commissioner Walter Keintzel, who went on a police ride-along Feb. 14, told fellow commissioners a little about what he saw. As he reports to Coast Weekly, it wasn''t pretty. "There was a hell of a lot of activity," he says. "Most of it had to do with a heavy amount of alcohol, along with an overdose of hormones."
Keintzel witnessed what he and others describe as a typical Saturday night crush at Safeway just before 2am, as the clubs empty out and half-drunk young people fill their shopping carts with liquor bottles, shoving and yelling at store clerks to ring up their sales before the registers close for the night.
"In some way, we''re paying for our success," says Keintzel. "Monterey has acquired a lively weekend scene, and that''s great, we want people downtown. But holy cow, they''re coming in from all over. Seventy-five percent of it I welcome, but the other 25 percent I''m not so sure about. Captain [Dave] Fortune told the commission that there are two Montereys, the daytime and the nighttime. He was right."
Eyewitness reports like those aired at the Feb. 24 Monterey Planning Commission meeting ended up fueling the commission''s denial of the club permit, with commissioners expressing fears that yet another dance club would attract more young people and more late-night weekend trouble to the city''s downtown streets.
Just how bad is downtown Monterey on a weekend night? Overall, statistics show that crime in the city is down, but alcohol-induced mischief definitely keeps city police busy. And city officials, recognizing the economic importance of Monterey''s tourist industry, are eager to preserve the city''s reputation as a safe, fun place to visit. To that end, and in close cooperation with the Monterey Police Department, the city has in recent years adopted a number of crime-prevention measures. Those measures include community-based policing, a heavy deployment of police in the downtown area late at night when the bars close, and--as they did last month--limiting new businesses they feel may contribute to the precarious balance of dance clubs catering to local youth and less hectic, more visitor-friendly entertainment venues.
"When I look at where we put our police resources, I believe we put too much into dealing with customers of a few establishments," says Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. "Why would I want to add to the inventory of these establishments by putting even more resources into it?"
Feeling No Pain
Monterey police officers and city officials agree that the overwhelming majority of police work downtown after dark involves alcohol. In 1997, there were 598 cases of public drunkenness (down from 758 cases in 1996), and 633 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI). According to police reports, 27 percent of the total DUI arrests in Monterey for 1995, ''96 and ''97 took place in the downtown area. (A slight dip in DUI figures for 1996 was due to a "redirection" of the department''s DUI enforcement vehicle that year, police officials say; the overall picture of drunken driving in Monterey remains just as worrisome.)
It''s no coincidence, police officials say, that by 1:30am, as the bars and clubs close down and their half-drunk patrons start wandering around looking for their cars, most on-duty city patrol cars are already converged on the downtown area to head off serious trouble.
But critics of the commission''s decision on Big Life Dance Club, proposed by applicant Montag Ivester --including Planning Commissioner Willard McCrone, who cast the lone "yes" vote for the club-- say the vote smacked of prejudice against youth. (Ivester, who is appealing his case on April 7, refuses to comment). Just a month earlier, the same city planning commission granted a permit for a karaoke bar/restaurant just two blocks further down Tyler Street.
"We''re not anti-youth, we''re anti-unacceptable behavior," insists Meurer. That''s probably true, in theory, but when you pin city and police officials down to explain why karaoke is OK and a dance club is not, the age factor definitely comes into play.
"The combination of a nice dinner and a formalized kind of entertainment that you see in a karaoke bar doesn''t appeal to 20-somethings," says Keintzel. "We don''t want knife fights, and we don''t want drunk drivers. It seems the problems we don''t want are caused by people under 25."
The location of the proposed club was also of concern to city officials. "It''s right across the street from the Safeway store and from the [MST] transit station," Meurer points out.
Ivester''s claim that the Big Life Dance Club would appeal to an upscale, 30-plus crowd is also nave, insist the owners of other downtown dance clubs.
"There aren''t enough people over 30 in our area who like to go out dancing to support a dance club," says Vince Larocca, owner of Viva''s on Alvarado Street. "He''ll constantly have to be turning away the [younger clientele]."
A dance club is by its nature a security risk, Larocca claims. "You get fights, and when the music is that loud, you can''t hear problems developing," he says. "You get just one night when you''re packed, and understaffed for security, and then you might have a real problem."
Brooke Lewis, a longtime club operator in downtown Monterey, owns McGarrett''s on Alvarado Street, a dance club fingered by cops and city officials as a "hot spot" for late-night trouble. On weekend nights the club easily fills its capacity of 450 patrons, virtually all in their 20s, dancing and drinking until the wee hours of the morning.
There are, Lewis says, "some natural problems" that come with running a dance club. Is his club a "hot spot?" Perhaps, he admits. "We probably entertain by far the largest number of people on a consistent basis, so that would probably be true," he says. "Our security guards work closely with the Monterey Police Department."
Safeway officials also insist that the Safeway saga reported to the Monterey Planning Commission was blown way out of proportion.
Deborah Lambert, corporate public relations director for Safeway, says that Keintzel witnessed "an isolated incident on Valentine''s Day, when two of our three registers were down and people got rambunctious." If late-night lines were a recurring problem, Lambert says, the store would certainly know about it and would take immediate steps to deal with the problem. "We are cooperating with the city to monitor it," she says. "But lines of hoodlums at Safeway? They don''t exist."
All in Their Minds
"It''s not enough that people are safe in our city," says Mayor Dan Albert. "They have to feel safe."
For the most part, Monterey residents do feel safe. In a citizens'' survey conducted in early 1997 by the city, 80 percent of respondents rated the city''s police services as excellent or good. And while respondents generally felt good about their own neighborhoods, more than half (54 percent) said there were places in the city where they did not go at night because they felt unsafe. Three-quarters of those people named the recreation trail from El Estero Park to the border of Seaside as the place where they felt most unsafe. Half fingered the city beaches and the North Fremont Avenue business district, while one-third said they avoided the rec trail from Fisherman''s Wharf to the Aquarium and the city parks.
When it came to downtown, 31 percent of those who felt unsafe in certain places said they felt unsafe downtown at night. Those numbers are better than in 1981, the last time this survey was conducted, when 65 percent of respondents said there were places they avoided at night because they felt unsafe. In ''81, city beaches and downtown Monterey were named as the most unsafe places in the city. Sixteen years later, the downtown area had dropped to sixth place; people feel safer there now.
Perceptions like these are particularly important to a city that derives 29 percent of its annual operating budget from hotel occupancy taxes. It''s the tourist dollars that help provide Monterey with the extra revenue for public safety improvements and police programs that other local cities simply can''t afford.
Four years ago, lights were installed along the recreation trail, and the police department instituted a beachfront bicycle patrol and a walking beat for the downtown area. In addition, the department runs a host of innovative policing programs that reach out to the community and local schools to increase public awareness and improve relations with local police. The Monterey Police Department has two "school resource officers," who work on local school grounds; a full-time "community resource officer" responsible for police volunteers and community events (including the Citizens Police Academy, now in its seventh class); a DARE program to fight drugs through community education; and a "youth diversion coordinator"--a position created this past January to focus on helping first-time youth offenders get back on track.
"The thing that makes Monterey different is our hotel tax, which makes us able to do the many things that make us unique," says Meurer.
Cops in other cities agree. "They have the ability to specialize and deal with things in a particular way," says Seaside Police Chief Dave Butler. "They have the money to put towards whatever it is they want to do." Butler adds, however, that the two cities'' police departments have "a very good working relationship," and he doesn''t intend his comments as any kind of criticism. It''s just the facts, he explains. "Monterey has been very gracious in helping us out with our shortage of staff, particularly our lack of investigators," he says, noting that Seaside''s force is down nine officers, slots the department has been unable to fill.
Lewis has only praise for local police efforts to keep trouble at bay in the clubs, and in the general downtown area late on weekend nights. "They do a really good job keeping crime down," he says. "We have an incredibly large police department for this size town. The city is concerned about Monterey''s image for tourists. They''re very protective of that. And it''s a good thing."
Or is it too much of a good thing? "Properly trained, these officers can have a very beneficial effect," says Monterey attorney Michael Stamp, who has stood up to city officials in several matters regarding police interaction with city residents. "The problem is whether the police have some agenda besides preserving the peace."
Stamp says the Monterey police have greatly improved their methods of dealing with young people on Alvarado Street in the past few years. "They no longer have the heavy-handed approach they had a few years ago, when [Alvarado Street coffeehouse] Plume''s was just opening," he says. "Then they had a much more aggressive posture towards what I call ''non-crimes,'' like jaywalking, congregating, and playing music too loud. The current attitude is, if someone''s music is too loud, they ask him to turn it down."
It''s in the police department''s best interest to keep downtown as safe as possible, Stamp says. That''s their job. It''s also why Stamp is uncomfortable with the weight he believes the planning commission gave to the police department''s recommendation in its Feb. 24 decision not to allow the new dance club. "I welcome police input, but I don''t like to see the police become policy-makers," Stamp says. "If you left the decision-making to the police, they would close all the bars downtown. That''s why we don''t. We leave decision-making to the city council."
According to statistics, Monterey is a pretty safe place. That''s why when violence strikes, as in the case of two women shot on Wharf 2--allegedly by a 17-year-old youth--it has such impact. (The youth is also facing charges of murdering another woman later that night in Seaside).
"The actual crimes that occur in Monterey are property crimes, not crimes of violence," says Monterey Police Chief Gary Brown. "You take an incident like the wharf shooting--in another city, a homicide would be reported on the third or fourth page. Because it happened in Monterey, even the [San Francisco] Chronicle picked up the story."
Just after the shootings, fears were high at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where the two women were students. One of the women died; the second is still recovering from her head wound in a rehab center, and has not indicated whether she will return to the Institute in the fall.
"It''s calmed down quite a bit since that first week," says Mark Hucklebridge, MIIS public affairs director. That''s because the school administration, together with the Monterey police department, acted quickly to explain the situation to students, faculty and staff, and brought in grief counselors and held a school-wide memorial for the slain woman.
Hucklebridge says he hasn''t received many calls about the shooting from prospective students or their parents. But the incident shook the campus pretty badly. "One of the reasons students come to Monterey is that it''s a safe place to live," he says. "This was such an isolated incident. So random, and so unfortunate."
Random murders definitely aren''t part of the daily routine for Monterey Police Officer Ken Shen. A graduate of Pacific Grove High and a fixture on the local surfing scene, Shen has been with the Monterey PD for three years. With his friendly, outgoing personality, he''s a natural for the downtown walking beat.
"It''s a lot of PR work, mostly," he says, as he strolls down Alvarado Street at noon on a recent Thursday, shaking hands with business-owners and pedestrians alike. Most of them seem to know him, even the transients.
"Everyone here''s really nice," he says. "I don''t get disrespect, because I show respect myself." In three years, he''s never had to use the can of mace he keeps strapped to his belt.
Shen gets along well with the downtown transients, most of whom he knows by name. Stopping to talk to 19-year-old Alan, who has been on the streets two years, he says, "I''ll bring you some more clothes soon, man." On his patrols, he looks for transients sleeping in quiet corners under bridges and behind hotels, but he says he doesn''t bother them if they''re "keeping a low profile."
"When you''re down on your luck, the last thing you need is a flashlight shining in your face and a cop telling you to move along," he says.
Shen did his rookie year in Marina, but moved to Monterey right afterwards. "There''s more crime in Marina," he notes. "That''s why I came to Monterey. I''m not a cowboy."
Still, Shen is ready for trouble when he sees it. "If someone''s breaking the law, I''ll arrest him or issue a citation," he says. "But I do it with respect. It''s you, the citizens, who gave me this job. When I take off this uniform and go surfing, I''m a citizen of Monterey, too."
Shen''s personality fits in well with the Monterey PD''s philosophy of community-oriented policing, he says. "We work on the basis of cooperation with the community," he explains. "They''re our eyes and ears."
Shen feels lucky to work in Monterey. "We''re lucky the city has the revenue to have these many officers, so we can be pro-active instead of just reactive," he says. "The number of officers we have on each beat is unheard-of in a small city like this."
"If you''re looking for a story about crime on Alvarado Street," Shen advises, "You won''t get much."
"City officials are really talking about more trouble [if we allow another dance club], not more crime," adds one local business owner who prefers anonymity, " and trouble isn''t against the law."