Mooning the City
U-District Bar Owner Battles Unfair City Regs
Last Monday morning, in a cramped boardroom on the 15th floor of downtown's One Union Square, attorneys for the Blue Moon tavern and the city were locked in tense negotiation. Administrative Law Judge Christy Cufley had asked the two sides to try, once more, to work things out, before she'd officially start a hearing.
After an hour and a half, neither side was willing to budge—Blue Moon's longtime owner, Gus Hellthaler, still refused to sign a city document called a "Community Good Neighbor Agreement" or CGNA. The city refused to amend the CGNA to make it less onerous. That meant the city, which claims the Blue Moon must sign a CGNA to satisfactorily combat an alleged drug problem, wouldn't lift its objection to the bar's application to serve hard liquor in addition to beer and wine. The hearing was on.
Hellthaler's attorneys, Tom Nast and David Osgood, launched their challenge. "This is not about narcotics," Osgood told the judge. "In the mayor's office and the city attorney's office, there is a concerted effort to control nightlife. [CGNAs] are popping up like mushrooms." He's right: In the past few years, the city has asked an increasing number of bars and clubs—nearly every establishment in bustling Fremont, for example—to sign a CGNA, a document that outlines the bar's business practices, and threatens revocation of a liquor license if the bar violates any of the agreement's terms.
Bar owners are practically required to sign the onerous documents because the city has the power to prevent a bar from obtaining a liquor license. Bar owners who want their liquor licenses approved sign CGNAs if the city asks them to. Otherwise, they could meet the Blue Moon's fate: The Washington State Liquor Control Board rubber-stamped the city's objection in April, denying Hellthaler's application without investigating the city's claims of drug problems. (Indeed, a WSLCB witness at Monday's hearing said she could count on one hand the number of times the board had overruled a city's objection in the past 15 years.)
Hellthaler's stubborn refusal to sign has forced the city, for the first time, to make a public case for a CGNA. On Monday afternoon, after just the first day of testimony, the city's case—both the immediate one against the Blue Moon and the larger case for CGNAs—was on shaky ground.
Some background: Hellthaler applied for an "enhanced" liquor license last December. The WSLCB asked the city for input, and six city departments—including vice, narcotics, criminal intelligence, and the department of neighborhoods—submitted paperwork indicating they had no information "that could support an objection." (The city has never objected to the 71-year-old bar's previous annual license renewals.)
On February 10, Assistant City Attorney Ed McKenna, aided by SPD Officer Ken Turner, invited Hellthaler to the SPD's North Precinct. After alluding to the Blue Moon's drug "reputation"—news to Hellthaler—McKenna asked the barkeep to sign a 32-point CGNA, regulating things such as what kind of flashlight security staff carry and which neighborhood associations Hellthaler will participate in.
Hellthaler refused—he balked at the extra layer of city regulation over his legal business ["Moon Blues," Sept 1]. The city's ensuing objection to his license application led to Monday's hearing.
At the hearing, the city began laying out a laughable case against the Blue Moon: "The city will show that the Blue Moon is a detriment to public safety," Assistant City Attorney Kirk Davis told the judge.
Not quite. By the end of the day, the city's own witnesses had undermined their case against the Blue Moon, and for CGNAs.
The city's first witness, University District property owner Thomas Ferguson, spoke about the neighborhood's general problems with drugs and gangs, but didn't tie any of his complaints to the Blue Moon. (Ferguson's properties are along University Way, eight blocks away from the Blue Moon, on the other end of the neighborhood.)
Another city witness, SPD Officer Turner—the University District Community Police Team officer—could recall only two complaints about drug activity at the Blue Moon in his two years on the beat. The first complaint was "insufficient" and "did not warrant a report," Turner acknowledged. The second complaint was anonymous and "vague." Turner frequently attends neighborhood meetings and hadn't heard any community groups complain about the Blue Moon (making it clear that the city—not the neighborhood—is behind the "community" bar agreements).
At the end of the day, the Blue Moon's attorneys tried to question Turner about the city's main evidence against the Blue Moon—since 2003, the SPD has done five successful undercover drug busts there, buying less than an ounce of marijuana total. Turner's name is on one of the reports, and Nast wanted to ask him about it. Assistant City Attorney Davis suddenly—and inexplicably—withdrew the report, slashing the city's case. "One of the incidents you rely on, you're going to withdraw it?" Nast asked incredulously.
As we went to press Tuesday morning, McKenna—the assistant city attorney who asked Hellthaler to sign a CGNA, and the guy who's gotten many North Precinct bars to sign the agreements—was slated to testify. Perhaps he'll shed some legitimate light on why the city is bent on getting the Blue Moon and dozens of other bars to sign CGNAs.
IN OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS
GEORGETOWN: Hush Rehearsal Studios—a band practice and recording space near the sports stadiums—ran into a problem while trying to move into a new building in Georgetown. The city reclassified Hush Studios as administrative offices—and required things like additional ventilation in the new building. The owners, Karen Jenkins and her husband, can't afford the upgrade, and reluctantly closed the business—home to 60 bands—on October 30. UNIVERSITY DISTRICT: Neighbors are still rallying against a proposed development at the corner of 15th Avenue NE and NE 42nd Street, currently a pay parking lot. The building "will fuck the University District community in a lot of ways," says one neighbor. A homeless-youth center and a popular neighborhood cafe face the alley—the new building would practically wall them in, neighbors allege. Some 2,500 neighbors have signed a petition requesting a plaza-style development instead of the proposed mixed-use project. HOSFORTH-ABERNATHY: On November 12, I'll be unloading a U-Haul at an apartment in this Southeast Portland neighborhood, marking the end of a four-year stint covering Seattle's neighborhoods, and beginning my gig as news editor for The Stranger's sister paper to the south, the Portland Mercury. It's been swell—au revoir! —AJ