By Leslie Wolf Branscomb
It’s become an unpleasant Sunday-morning tradition for Luke Terpstra and his neighbors on Essex Street: greet the day, survey the damage and get down to the business of picking up the bottles, fast-food containers and trash left by revelers the night before.
“It has to do with people parking on Essex who go to the bars,” Terpstra explained at a recent meeting of the Hillcrest Town Council. “They come back, very loud, leave trash, car alarms go off… it tends to end around 3 a.m.”
The neighbors on Essex Street have been suffering for years from the spillover from the restaurants, bars and nightclubs one block north on University Avenue. The lack of parking on University causes many to park in the nearby residential neighborhoods instead.
The issue came to a head at a town council meeting in May, when it was suggested that Essex Street be marked for diagonal parking to allow more cars. “We said, wait a minute, now you’re going to turn it into a parking lot?” said Terpstra. “Diagonal parking is the first step toward metered parking,” added Miah Sperling, another Essex resident.
Soon it became clear that the issue wasn’t so much about parking as about the behavior of inebriated club-goers in the neighborhood.
At a June 9 town council meeting, several bar owners were brave enough to face the crowd and hear their complaints. Nick Moede, owner of Rich’s and Numbers; Chris Shaw, owner of Baja Betty’s and Urban Mo’s; and Alex Marin, owner of the Bamboo Lounge, all agreed to do what they could to keep their customers in line.
They agreed to post signs asking patrons to leave quietly and be respectful of the neighbors, and Benjamin Nicholls of the Hillcrest Business Association said he would help create the signs.
Moede said his clubs employ up to 10 guards on busy nights, who try to keep the peace, particularly at closing time when some 500 or more people might be leaving at once. “Those guards are responsible to see patrons don’t get in fights or cause problems, and are quiet when they’re leaving,” Moede said. “Legally, we’re responsible for 100 feet from our establishment. However, our guards can’t go beyond that.”
Moede also cautioned the neighbors against jumping to the conclusion that the nightclub patrons were responsible for all the trash – the bottles and styrofoam containers more likely came from nearby liquor stores and fast-food places, he said.
As far as parking, San Diego Police Officer David Surwillo, the department’s community liaison for Hillcrest, said there is not really a parking shortage in the area. “The problem is people are unwilling to walk a block,” he said. “It’s about convenience.”
Surwillo suggested nightclub patrons park in the large lot at the Department of Motor Vehicles on Normal Street, a block and a half north of University.
However, several in attendance questioned whether their cars might be towed if they did so. Numerous signs are posted on the building and fences that say: “DMV State of California Customer Parking ONLY. Violators will be cited and towed away at owner’s expense.”
A representative from San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria’s office, Courtney Thomson, said the councilman was aware of the parking situation and has taken steps to clarify whether the DMV lot may be used by the public.
Katie Keach, Gloria’s deputy chief of staff, later said the councilman is working with state Sen. Christine Kehoe to determine whether the lot could be made available to the general public – not just for nightclub patrons – when the DMV is closed. The senator contacted DMV officials the first week of June, she said, and is awaiting a response.
Before his election, Gloria was successful in a similar effort with the Hillcrest Post Office, which now allows paid public parking on evenings and weekends, Keach said.
Carol Schultz, executive director of the Uptown Partnership, said she hoped people would not be too quick to begin parking in the DMV lot before the matter is resolved. “My concern is that if the lot is opened up, it be done on a managed and secure basis,” Schultz said. “We should take this a step at a time.”
It was also suggested at the meeting that the club and bar owners encourage their employees to park on Essex since they, presumably, would arrive earlier and leave in a quieter fashion than the customers.
Another possibility mentioned was to establish a valet parking partnership with the clubs. A suggested long-term solution could be construction of a parking garage.
Many at the meeting thanked the bar owners for being willing to consider alternatives. “We are trying to make ourselves accessible by being here,” Marin said. “We’re trying to do the right thing for our community.”
Leslie Wolf Branscomb has been an editor and journalist for 27 years, writing primarily about politics and law for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and others.