We’ve all experienced it, living in Santa Monica: You desperately need a bottle of wine and there’s no place nearby to get one. And by “nearby” I guess we mean the distance one can throw a cork.
On September 19, as reported by this newspaper, the Planning Commission approved a Conditional Use Permit allowing a new “gourmet market” on Main Street to operate a 12-seat wine tasting area. The permit lacked support from the Santa Monica Police Department, the neighboring community, and of course other nearby liquor vendors. But it went through anyhow, because of the burning need for more and wider access to wine in our city.
The location of the new market puts it near three other liquor outlets on Main Street, and according to a City staff report the area can often be a source of calls to police and other services regarding “public drunkenness, public urination, and persons needing medical attention” because they’re, how shall we say it, loaded… in public. Looking at all that, the need for more wine there was clear.
The likelihood that a wine tasting bar in a gourmet food shop will become a rowdy nuisance or a danger is slim. But shouldn’t the citizens of a given neighborhood be able to say, “Thanks, but we’d rather not have more alcohol dispensed right where we live.” And shouldn’t those views be heard rather than set aside just because the mixed-use buildings that are eating Main Street must have everything they ask for?
Ambitious developers know going in that booze is often a key component in making retail areas work for the long-term. Again, I’m keeping in mind that we’re adding a wine bar here, not “Gurglin’ Bob’s Biker Bar.” But is it needed? If construction of retail sites depended on meeting a standard of “need” as established by the Dalai Lama and Ralph Nader… then, no, we don’t. But retail isn’t based on need; it’s based on how far you can push things until stores start closing. Or, as we now know about Main Street, they close and become fume-filled nail salons.
I think what the citizens of the neighborhood tried to communicate to the city in this case was, “You can’t tell me there’s a need for access to wine that this new place must satisfy. Therefore, could you please not build it? Don’t bring more alcohol into our neighborhood just because people want to make money. Thank you.”
Alcohol is tricky stuff when you attempt to rationalize just how pervasive it needs to be. At one end, urban neighborhoods have rallied to reduce the number of liquor stores in a given block and thus raise the quality of life in those areas. At another end, my mother was annoyed when the Catholic church in her small town received permission to sell beer at something touted as a “family festival.” And it only confuses things when permits for alcohol sales are viewed by many as a license to print money.
Wine is thought to have positive health benefits. Yet as recently as last week, there was a major study indicating that the risk of breast cancer increases with the amount of alcohol ingested, and that included all alcoholic beverages. Drunk driving, domestic violence… Hey, we all know. The only reliable pro-alcohol argument out there is the one that begins, “Since we all like the stuff…” America likes and enjoys alcoholic beverages and clearly associates them with good times, celebration, relaxation, socialization, and in the case of our new gourmet shop, profit margin.
And there’s other stuff besides alcohol that we like. Tax bases, revenue, development. Like alcohol, they also have side effects: Studies have indicated a risk of fouling up neighborhoods with unrestrained retail nobody really needs. Of late, we’ve come to think that retail only impacts our quality of life when it comes in the form of big-box stores casting a giant shadow. But sometimes the steps are smaller. Older buildings with character are destroyed; charm-free new buildings go up in a hurry. The sky gets harder to see over the tops of the several-story growths (in the medical sense) that begin to encroach. And then, no matter what we have to say about it, they sell wine because, well, hell, dude, you can’t have too much wine…