The development team aiming to build a major entertainment/retail attraction next to Staples Center in downtown has applied for a permit that would allow 28 liquor licenses at the four-block project site. That move has triggered opposition from a community group that claims social ills in the neighborhood can be traced to the use of alcohol.

"Well, I think it's a lousy idea," said Bert Saavedra, spokeswoman for Pico Union-Westlake Cluster Network, a coalition of non-profit and governmental social agencies.

Saavedra has worked in the South Park area for close to 10 years. She said the community extending from Staples Center to South Central L.A. for many years has been grappling with problems from alcohol abuse.

Nevertheless, L.A. Arena Co. and Anschutz Entertainment Group say they need the liquor licenses before they can move ahead with their plans to develop the area.

Ted Tanner, senior vice president of real estate for Anschutz, said that restaurants and nightclubs are critical to the 23.5-acre residential, retail and entertainment development because those businesses won't sign up to be a part of the project without the licenses in hand.

In its effort to create a 24-hour downtown, L.A. Arena Co. is applying to the city for a master conditional-use permit that would allow for 24 liquor licenses for on-site consumption of alcohol in the project area. The other four licenses that L.A. Arena Co. is seeking would allow sale of alcohol for off-site consumption.

Before Staples Center opened in 1999, the Pico Union-Westlake Cluster Network and other community officials in the Coalition for Safe Practices persuaded L.A. Arena Co. to implement programs for alcohol service training and alternate means of transportation for patrons of the facility.

Alcohol blamed for violence

The community officials want similar safeguards instituted for the development adjacent to Staples. Saavedra said alcohol was partly to blame for the violence associated with last year's Lakers championship celebration because revelers drank irresponsibly while watching the formal celebration on an outdoor video screen supplied by the arena owners.

If the 28 liquor licenses are absolutely necessary and inevitable, Saavedra said, the community at least wants to know who's going to use the licenses and for what sorts of operations. The number of liquor licenses already issued for establishments within the two census tracts where the arena stands and the development is planned, is already 14 more than the number advised by the California Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control.

Chris Modrzejewski, senior director of public affairs for Staples Center, said L.A. Arena Co. has applied for the conditional-use permit, but the permit only would give the company the right to buy those liquor licenses. That right would, in essence, mean that the licenses would not be activated until the development moves forward.

Modrzejewski said the move to apply for a large number of licenses is hardly unprecedented, as licenses have been granted in large blocks for many large developments including Union Station, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and the Beverly Connection in West L.A.

Jim Holmes, a city planning department employee working on the L.A. Arena Co. case, said the Howard Hughes Center in West L.A. got a conditional-use permit allowing about 10 licenses and the Union Station project was permitted for 27 licenses.

Community input sought

Saavedra said maybe L.A. Arena Co. could convince the community it needs a load of permits, but 28 are too many. She added that the developer should apply for them as needed. That would allow the community to participate in the process to protect its interests.

Modrzejewski said that L.A. Arena Co. is trying to work with Saavedra and the rest of the community.

"One of the things we're willing to consider doing is working with the community to identify and buy licenses in this (census) tract and a number of tracts around here that might be suspended or unused, so we're not bringing in new licenses," he said.

Other usually vocal critics of liquor licenses are not so worried about the plans. City Councilwoman Rita Walters said her past opposition to liquor licenses has concerned licenses for businesses in neighborhoods where liquor peddlers outnumber grocery stores. And while she fought a losing one-woman fight against a license at the movie theater planned for The Grove at Farmers Market, Walters is satisfied with the L.A. Arena Co. plan.

"You're not going to see a bunch of drunks hanging out around Staples Center," she said. "It's a whole different dynamic going on."

Holmes agreed and said that's why he will recommend that the Planning Commission approve the conditional-use permit to allow the licenses.

"You would expect and probably should have liquor served at such an establishment," he said.

Saavedra said her group would meet with L.A. Arena Co. officials on May 18 to discuss the issue further. She said she already has turned over 500 signatures from a petition opposing the "arbitrary issuance" of liquor licenses and will deliver another 500 signatures when the Planning Commission meets May 23.

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