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Highland Park's bar boom not sitting well with some residents

Almost 20 businesses -- including bars, restaurants, and stores -- were issued alcohol retail licenses in Highland Park in the last 3 years. Photo by dherman1145 via Flickr

Highland Park's bar boom along Figueroa Street has contributed to the neighborhood's growing profile and appeal, but it's not sitting well with some residents. 

The northeast L.A. neighborhood covers less than four square miles, but is home to over 60 of the city's alcohol licenses, about a third of which were issued in the past three years alone. 

 "The good thing is there's less violence because a lot of people are out at night because of the bars," said Hector Barrasa, who has lived in Highland Park his whole life. "But the bad thing is that they're bars, they should be at least different type of stuff."

Bar and restaurant owners say they're creating jobs in the neighborhood, and that the consistently crowded spots speak for themselves in terms of demand. 

Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council member Jessica Ceballos , however, said it's gone too far.

​“It’s not a sustainable economic framework for a community, and we need varied businesses that aren’t just restaurants or coffee shops, that employ people from various industries and backgrounds,” Ceballos said.

The neighborhood council does not approve or deny liquor license applications—that's done by the Department of City Planning and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control —but it can write letters in support of new businesses hoping to apply for one.

“I don’t ever support unless it’s an existing business that’s been there like twenty years and they need to make money,” Ceballos said.

Ceballos researched other cities that have faced gentrification like Boston, Charleston, and San Francisco.

“Liquor played a huge role in that process,” she said. “Because as property value goes up, everything rises, so people have to make ends meet— and the best way to do it is to sell liquor.”

In 2011, the concentration of licenses in San Francisco was one for every 1,250 residents, making the city eligible for a moratorium on new Type 20 licenses. According to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage control, the moratorium on new licenses for beer and wine sold in stores but consumed elsewhere is still in effect in San Francisco through the end of this year. 

After Ceballos learned about what happened in San Francisco, she did her own research to see if a moratorium could be placed in Highland Park. According to her calculations, the neighborhood had one alcohol retail license for every 1,040 inhabitants -- that's a higher concentration the minimum 1 per 2,500 residents required for a moratorium.

Although the motion passed the neighborhood council, moratoriums cannot be isolated to neighborhoods. They are either city or countywide, and the city of Los Angeles's 4,084 licenses for almost 4 million residents does not meet the required concentration. As a result, businesses can still apply for and be issued on and off sale licenses in all of Los Angeles, including Highland Park. 

So if residents want to prevent a new business from getting a license to serve or sell, they have to attend zoning hearings, or appeal decisions for each individual case. 

Map: alcohol licenses in Highland Park's 90042 zip code
Licenses granted since 2011 in green

On a recent weekday afternoon, one of those bars—The Greyhound Bar and Grill on Figueroa—was almost full. The Greyhound got its Type 47 license to serve beer, wine, and spirits in 2013.

"These businesses that are coming in, they are affordable," said general manager Bryan Wilson. "We have happy hour every day, seven days a week, and everybody's providing a lot of new jobs for young people in the neighborhood."

Wilson said he thought blaming businesses alone was unfair.

“I understand how people are getting a little annoyed with the gentrification of the area, that’s pretty horrible when you live somewhere your whole life then you get pushed out,” said Wilson, who has worked at the Greyhound for over two years. 

He said he thinks businesses like the Greyhound aren't at fault: real estate developers and local government are to blame.

“Those are the ones who are basically raising rents and squeezing people out,” he said as he served customers one recent afternoon. “But hey, come have a beer, forget about it.”