Around 1:30 a.m. Sunday, crowds of slightly inebriated 20-somethings made their way out of the downtown Pier Plaza Hermosa Beach bars. American Junkie and Baja Sharkeez, bars known for party-like atmospheres, dimmed their late night lights and began turning down the volume and turning up the speed of departure of the evening’s cliental. Bouncers barred the doors throughout Pier Plaza while bartenders turned up the chairs.
Groups gathered in the plaza to plan their next move. Some grabbed taxis, while others stopped at Robert’s Liquor to stock up on spirits. Zeppy’s Pizzeria filled up as boisterously hungry clients lined up out the door. A man yelled, and four Hermosa Beach cops kept an eye on the commotion.
By 2:30 a.m. the plaza was almost completely deserted.
Local activist Jim Lissner would like to change this scenario. He would like Pier Plaza to be deserted earlier, and for Hermosa Beach itself to be less defined by its riotous late nights. His “Quiet Nights” initiative, which voters will consider on the November 5 ballot, would decrease bar hours in the Pier Plaza area by one and sometimes two hours.
“I kept hearing council members say that something needed to be done about the hours downtown, but they didn’t do anything about it,” Lissner said. “So I decided to.”
Over a five year period, Measure B would amend the Hermosa Beach General Plan to establish new closing times for downtown businesses specifically in the Pier Plaza area – between 8th and 16th streets and between the Strand and Manhattan Avenue. The time changes would begin in April and eventually change closing times from 2 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Establishments would have five days per year when they could be open past the new closing times. Hotels and stores that sell alcohol for off-site consumption would be exempt from the new closing times.
Through the initiative, Lissner hopes to reduce police manpower necessary on Pier Plaza during the late night hours and bring in a more mature crowd to the local bar scene.
“I think that we will end up with a more prosperous bar industry downtown,” said Lissner. “Right now we have a way younger crowd. They’re learning to drink and make a lot of mistakes and our city has to pick up the pieces…Our residents don’t want to go downtown now. We repel good customers and restaurants because we have such a rowdy atmosphere.”
Not true, said Ron Newman, owner of Baja Sharkeez and co-owner of Palmilla.
“You have no idea the damage this will do just in loss of employee jobs,” Newman told the City Council at a recent meeting. “As far as if we closed at midnight, you wouldn’t have people coming at 10 [p.m.] because they’d have to leave in an hour or two. Even if you were doing a good food business it costs so much money to pay rent, build these buildings, insurance and all the [taxes] the city charges, everything else… if this happens it will be the end of Hermosa Beach.”
Newman added that downtown establishments in Hermosa Beach will have even more competition when the new $300 million Redondo Beach waterfront opens up and many will not be able to stay in business if they face such a competitive disadvantage.
“It will hurt us a lot,” said Baja Sharkeez bartender Marty Carrizo. “We’d have to lay off half our staff. I definitely won’t be able to live on the beach anymore and I don’t think we’d have anybody coming down here. Who would want to come to a bar where last call is at 11:30?”
Patrick Molloy’s bartender John Castillo is worried about losing work hours and tips, especially during the peak hours of 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
“It just wouldn’t be the same,” said Castillo. “The city would be getting less income too and it would definitely affect tourism.”
But some nearby residents emphatically do not want the plaza area to be the same. Anne Sullivan, who has lived on 18th Street for 40 years, has seen the effects of Pier Avenue’s nightlife overspill into residential areas. In the past year, she says, her neighborhood has seen at least three drunk-related break-ins.
“My neighbor four houses down woke up at 3:30 in the morning and saw a drunk bumbling down his hallway,” said Sullivan, who also saw a drunk man standing in her yard staring into the windows earlier in the year. “Next door to me a drunk walked in at 5:30 in the morning. He [the neighbor] was in the shower and hears a noise; there is a drunk walking down the hallway right past the bedroom where his wife is feeding the baby. The guy walks into the living room and lays down on the couch.”
No magic bullets
The city has long grappled with ways to mitigate the impact of downtown nightlife. But city officials have not embraced Measure B’s solutions.
Former Hermosa Beach Police Chief Michael McCrary said at a September 10 City Council meeting that he didn’t think changing closing times would make much of an impact on the amount of police needed downtown.
“We believe it will be the same,” said McCrary. “My concern is the offsite establishments that can sell alcohol, so people will go out in the parking lots and to the beaches to drink.”
“They’ll buy whatever they want and go off site because people are used to partying until two,” said HBPD Capt. Tom Thompson at the same meeting.
Currently the city works with the local bars on a case-by-case basis. Each establishment has its own Conditional Use Permit [CUP] that regulates everything from the hours of operation to the amount of televisions on the wall. Hermosa Beach bars currently operate with staggered closing times, in accordance with each establishment’s respect CUP – which allows Hermosa Beach Police to specifically hone in on problem places.
“At least with the 2 a.m. closing time the patrons are under some sort of management,” Councilmember Peter Tucker said at a recent council meeting. “At 1 a.m. they would have to leave… All of a sudden establishments are off the hook, in a way, and people can go to the local liquor store.”
Thompson added that establishments that have had problems in the past were dealt with individually. Lowering individual closing times or altering the liquor license mitigated the problems.
“A staggered approach would be much better for us,” McCrary said, referring to Measure B’s across-the-board closing times. “So we don’t have everybody out on that plaza at one time trying to get cabs, walk home, etcetera.”
The campaign against Measure B has enlisted 52 businesses in active opposition. Andrea Jacobsson, owner of car dealership, said that the measure is blind to all business interests.
“It treats the really good and the really bad businesses the same way,” Jacobsson said. “It shuts everybody down.”
Comedy and Magic Club owner Mike Lacey said that he’s worried about one group’s ability to affect change on the entire community.
“We need to depend on the city and their wisdom,” Lacey said. “They’re much less biased and they have a lot of resources at their fingertips to make good determinations about people and businesses rights. I love this town and we have a lot of great businesses. Once this line has been crossed where people can just change laws and rights, that becomes scary.”
Lacey is also worried about how the earlier closing times will affect the viability of his comedy club and his ability to put on two shows in a night.
“These are tough times,” Lacey said. “We’re in a recession. A lot of acts that play here don’t do any other club in the U.S. When they’re warming up, like when Chris Rock warmed up for the Oscars — they need to do two shows in a night. They come down here because they need to get as much work done in as short a time as possible. With [Measure B] we can’t do two shows… It does a lot of damage with the amount and quality of acts I can get through the door. It threatens the existence of the club if my hands are tied. It could close me.”
At Lacey’s club, alcohol is served in moderation.
“We don’t have that kind of environment,” said Lacey. “I’ve not caused these problems and yet this thing is just the shotgun approach. It hurts businesses that have done nothing wrong at all.”
To fix the problems associated with drinking downtown, Lacey would like to sit down and talk with Lissner and his group to discuss steps to solve the problems.
“He says things like he knows my business and knows that he’s not hurting me,” said Lacey. “Well why don’t you come and ask me and other places before you do something that’s pretty much irreversible? Why not resolve these things in a positive manner first before you take such drastic actions?”
To help calm downtown disturbances, Newman said that all of the bars on Pier Avenue have at least two to eight on-duty security employees in the evenings. If the hours were cut back, he said, those security personnel would no longer be on duty to assist with late night Pier Plaza problems.
“There are problems, we won’t disagree with that, but it’s dramatically better than it was in the past,” said Dave Lowe, Chamber of Commerce spokesperson and owner of the bar Establishment. “The best way to do this is to have businesses owners and groups of businesses work together to solve some of these problems, whether it’s increased security or bathrooms…Business owners don’t want to cause problems. Things do happen, but there are ways to mitigate that, and it doesn’t have to cost the city money. Working with people is the way to do this.”
Best Little Beach City
Twenty-one establishments would be subject to Measure B, according to a recent city staff report.
The report also outlines a fiscal impact to the city in terms of loss of sales tax, reduction of business license fees and parking fees. According to the report’s estimates, the city could lose at least $39,949 in business license revenue. Sales tax revenue loss to the city could be anywhere from an potential $18,854 to $ 113,126.
The ballot argument in favor of the ballot measure, written by Tracy Hopkins, Jim Lissner, Kathleen Midstrokke, Ron Pizer and Anne Sullivan, suggests the city would save money through reduced policing costs.
“Hermosa Beach is indeed, ‘The Best Little Beach City,’” the argument said. “Being the best, we are popular; but being little, we cannot afford a big police department. Yet, in 2011 and 2012 Hermosa’s per capita rate of police calls for service was more than double the rate in Manhattan Beach.”
Opponents of the the “Quiet Nights” measure dispute the data offered by proponents. City staff and police projections also differ.
The city’s report indicates that calls for service remain high after the current 2 a.m. closing time, dropping off significantly by 3 a.m. Based on the data, city staff reported that if the closing times were moved back to the times suggested in the measure, the number of calls would simply move up an hour and the same amount of officers would be assigned to the downtown area. The report also suggests that patrons of establishments, who would normally remain inside consuming beverages until 1:45 a.m., could potentially purchase alcoholic beverages at local stores that sell alcoholic beverages for off-site consumption and consume these beverages in the City parking lots or on the City beach.
None of the seven city council candidates up for election on November 5 supports the measure.
The current City Council unanimously opposes Measure B and took specific issue with the police calls-for-service argument made by its proponents.
“We are aware of how statistics can be adjusted to accentuate a particular point,” Councilmember DiVirgilio wrote in a rebuttal on behalf of the entire council. “The ballot argument in favor of this initiative has done that. “For instance, in 2012, the City of Manhattan Beach (pop. 35,391) had a 51,228 calls for service, which is 1.4 calls per resident. During the same period, the City of Hermosa Beach (pop. 19,648) had 23,638 calls for service, or 1.3 calls per resident. Yes, Hermosa Beach has FEWER CALLS for service.”
DiVirgilio argued that the city has already taken steps to create a friendlier, less impactful nighttime climate. He wrote that the council has worked with the businesses by reducing hours for businesses that abused their rights, expanded holiday enforcement efforts, created opportunities for the Bar and Tavern Association to pay for restrooms and security during special events and embarked upon an effort to formalize business fund improvement’s on an ongoing basis.
“Achieving the future we desire downtown deserves a more thoughtful approach than a few misrepresented statistical points,” DiVirgilio argued. “That is why the Hermosa Beach City Council continues to believe that its comprehensive plan is the best way to maintain the character of Hermosa Beach while bringing about changes that the community desires. We all oppose this initiative and believe there is a better way.”
Lissner is undaunted by opposition to Measure B. He is convinced Hermosa Beach could better thrive in its aftermath.
“We need to push the reset button to make way for a better Pier Avenue,” Lissner said in a recent interview.
For over a decade, Lissner has been the loudest voice in Hermosa’s fight to curtail drinking, alcohol-related noise and violence. He has routinely challenged applications for liquor licenses in Hermosa, but has only been successful delaying approvals. He successfully challenged Sharkeez’ expansion plans after the establishment burned in 2006. In 2011 he qualified an initiative for the ballot that would have raised business license fees astronomically on many nightspots, before backing down and publicly opposing his own initiative, which failed to pass. He does not personally live near downtown, but on a side street off Gould Avenue in north Hermosa Beach.
“He’s an economic terrorist,” Lowe said. “He’s out there trying to destroy businesses.”
Former councilmember and mayor Robert “Burgie” Benz was on the dais in the 1990s when Hermosa Beach began the revitalization of its downtown area, closing off the area to traffic and creating Pier Plaza. Benz said that Measure B could undo much of what was accomplished and return the area to its former dilapidated state.
“We reduced obscure parking rules and regulations and made it more business friendly and all of a sudden the town upgraded itself with huge investments,” Benz said. “It was primarily bars and restaurants because those are the only businesses that can make it downtown. People have to ask themselves, if they want Measure B, do they want a downtown? Lets just put condos downtown because that’s the only other option. Accept the fact that if a restaurant wants to make a go of it and if you shut them down at midnight you’re basically taking them and gutting them.”
Benz said that he’s worried that the measure will pass because of the older demographic of the people who will turn out to vote.
“People who are for Measure B typically don’t work and have a lot of time to vote and people who are younger are working their ass off don’t have time to vote,” Benz said.
He also said that as long as he has lived in the area, Hermosa Beach has been a small beach party town. He’s wary of residents who don’t understand the city’s history.
“The downtown had declined precipitously,” said Benz of the late 1980s. “There were a couple of boarded-up shops, and the bars downtown were real crapholes. It was the only place you could go to watch not just a regular bar fight, but a bar fight with women in it. And of course the area around it became quite rough.”
He said that at that time there was a push to become more business friendly, and the downtown area almost became a haven for condominiums.
“What stopped it is that Hermosa Beach gets most of its revenue from businesses – sales tax, hotel tax, utility tax. When you add it all up 80 percent of the taxes come from businesses. Resident’s don’t cut the bill, yet residents demand services,” said Benz
A statement in the Measure B argument describes Hermosa Beach as “a high quality bedroom community with no significant ten-year growth in population and no growth in land area.”
“Now Lissner says it’s a bedroom community, and yes it is,” said resident George Barks at a recent council meeting. “Because of that, that’s why Hermosa Beach has a very small tax base and we need to have more of a commercial tax base and be more business friendly. This initiative is not business friendly and businesses would lose money, employees would lose hours of work and… you’re really not going to have less [police] deployment. The city’s cost will be the same, but you will get less revenue from those businesses.”
Benz believes that if Measure B passes, businesses will once again be boarded up.
“The upgrading of the town certainly contributed to the increase of property values in Hermosa Beach,” Benz said. “Up until then it was a lot of beach cottages, and the consequence of the upgrade of downtown ended up substantially increasing property values of the town resulting in the nouveau rich moving in, many who don’t surf… They’re in a town that’s very highly dense and they pay so much for their property that they feel entitled. And one of the entitlements is peace and quiet, which is incongruent with a city that’s the most densely populated city this side of the Mississippi…that has an average age of 32. If anybody examines this in more than their little selfish ‘I’m entitled to peace and quiet attitude’ they will discover that this is no less than the destruction of Hermosa as a town.”
Mr. Quiet Nights
Although many people have referred to Lissner as strictly anti-alcohol, he says that he has nothing against drinking.
“I drink,” he said in an interview. “I’ve even been arrested on Pier Avenue for that. I kinda know what goes on there.”
In mid-October 2002 Lissner was arrested by Hermosa Beach Police after jumping into an empty police car parked on Pier Plaza. It was reported that he was uncooperative during the booking process and didn’t know his phone number or where he was born.
Lissner said his motives are simple.
“I’ve lived here for 35 years and I’ve just noticed that our city services have gone away,” said Lissner. “It’s not the police department’s fault. They have to respond to the many urgent calls from downtown and be there to break up fights. That’s why I’m interested in this issue.”
Benz questions Lissner’s motives.
“He’s an out and out xenophobe,” Benz said. “He doesn’t want anybody in this town to have fun, and he relishes the power that squeaking the wheels gives him.”
Newman, the Baja Sharkeez owner, said that Lissner’s arguments don’t withstand scrutiny.
“In 2007 Council Member JR Reviczky had a study done as far as crime because we heard the same story from Lissner,” Newman said. “At the time they found that only two percent of crime was downtown, the rest was all over the city. When a proper study is done on this a lot of what Lissner said in his report or said to people when they signed the petition will be untrue.”
A 10-year report from the Hermosa Beach Police Department from 2000 to 2010 indicates that in some areas crime in Hermosa Beach has gone down or remained the same, although disturbance calls to police have gone up.
In 2000, the HBPD reported 2,477 disturbance calls; in 2010, that number increased to 3,640. In 2000, six sex crimes were reported. That number fluctuated throughout the years, but stayed the same in 2010. DUI’s increased to 243 in 2010 from 152 in 2000, but then decreased again to 181 in 2012. Theft decreased from 501 in 2000 to 423 in 2010. In 2000 there were 25,147 overall calls for service — not just those reporting a disturbance — which remained relatively stable at 25,383 in 2010 and 24,517 in 2012.
Lissner argues that he is only carrying out what he believes were the council’s intentions when in February 2012 it issued a resolution against further intensification — that is, increased hours or additional liquor licences — of late night establishments. Lissner quotes the resolution in the ballot measure text.
“Certain areas of the City, such as the Hermosa Beach Pier Plaza and commercial downtown, have become a nightlife destination for people all over Southern California and that nightlife has brought with it significant negative impacts,” the resolution said. “This area, for example, requires a disproportionate police presence compared to other parts of the City. Due to the high number of calls for police service, the Hermosa Beach Police Department must deploy officers to specifically patrol the Pier Plaza and downtown area, especially after midnight, and to act as a deterrent to criminal, boisterous and unruly behavior by inebriated persons.”
In early September, the City Council sought to incentivize closing earlier for late-night establishments in exchange for parking, cash or other specific concessions such as allowance for live entertainment, space for dance floors or changes from beer and wine service to general alcohol. The “No Intensification” amendment added criteria for granting modifications to CUPs of bars or restaurants, thereby restricting expansion in the hopes establishments will voluntarily limit their hours. It also instituted a cap on the number of late-night establishments that serve alcohol, although the council can make an exception to the cap at any time.
Lissner said the effort fell far short of curbing downtown chaos. Hence, Measure B.
“A section in Measure B lifts the ability to trade and basically suspends that part of the No Intensification ordinance until 2019 to stop the trading,” Lissner said at an October 15 Planning Commission meeting. “… I think it’s a big mistake to be increasing the number of people in our bars late at night. On the weekends we have enough to serve Hermosa and the whole South Bay. We really don’t have to serve half of Los Angeles, which is what we’re doing now.”
“At least we have a CUP in place that has a number of restrictions that can be enforced,” Planning Commissioner Sam Perrotti said at the same meeting. “If memory serves me right five or six years ago there was a stabbing on the Pier on a Monday night, one of the quietest nights of the week. True, there’s more noise and more problems on the weekends — but a serious problem can exist any night of the week.”
Lissner said the city hasn’t done enough to curb Pier Avenue’s excesses.
“From what I see, the troublemakers downtown don’t live here,” Lissner said. “So when Measure B pushes them out on the street at 12:45 they will look at the time, look at the line of cabs and say: ‘Dude, if we get in that cab, five minutes we can be in Manhattan and drink for another hour.’ And they will be out of our hair. The way it is now, at 1:45 there’s no where else to go, so they buy some beer and pizza and hang around here ’til 3 or 4.”
“The people whose goal for the night is personal annihilation will go somewhere else, so the taxpayers of Hermosa won’t have to pick up the pieces.”
Benz suggested the “out of town” argument has a racial element and those who make it “would be perfectly willing to put a fence around Hermosa so they can be in their own little cloistered stench.” He argues Measure B is simply not Hermosa Beach.
“It’s predicated on folks who think the beach town should be a quiet little living community and what makes it so absurd is that the average age of Hermosans is 32 younger, and they do what 32 and younger do,” said Benz. “If folks want peace and quiet, get on the 405 and go down south and take a right at leisure world. By the way, I’m 57-years old. These people want peace and quiet and don’t like the fact that the bars are here. The bars are here because they serve the clientele of the city.” ER