By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Setting aside warnings about increased alcohol-related crimes downtown, the Santa Rosa City Council overruled its planning director Tuesday and allowed a Petaluma businessman to move forward with plans for a wine and liquor store on a prominent but long-vacant downtown corner.
Police officials, noting that the top two reported crimes downtown are driving under the influence of alcohol and public intoxication, recommended the council reject plans that Vikram Badhan has to open a Wilibees Wine and & Spirits at the intersection of Third and D streets.
But on a 6-1 vote, council members found that the “public convenience or necessity” would be served by the new store, which would be the only one of its kind in the downtown area.
Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom noted that the city’s own Economic Development Department is running advertisements promoting Santa Rosa as “beer city” in the heart of Wine Country.
“We kind of either have to decide whether we like alcohol or we don’t like alcohol,” Carlstrom said.
The council’s sign-off was needed to override the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department’s conclusion that four other businesses selling off-sale alcohol represented an “undue concentration” of such permits downtown.
Several speakers downplayed that claim, noting that two of the permit holders were small delis that close early and sell a minimal amount of alcohol.
Without the council backing the project, the state would never grant it the required licenses. The decision merely allows the business to continue with the city application process. The full project with specific conditions will still need a use permit from the city planning commission, which is appealable to the full council.
The proposal gave several council members pause, however. Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant, acknowledged the plan was giving him “angst” because while the project proposed to cater to high-end clientele, the license being authorized is no different from any other liquor store.
Olivares said he also had concern about the high levels of crimes reported downtown compared to other parts of the city.
“I’m having a hard time with this one,” Olivares said, though he ultimately approved the project.
Councilman Jake Ours questioned whether it was accurate to liken the proposal to Traverso’s, the beloved Italian market and deli that also sold wines for generations downtown before it moved up to Fountaingrove in 2009.
“We’re not approving Traverso’s or anything like Traverso’s,” Ours said, who cast the lone no vote against the project.
Some council members fretted about what might happened if the business changed hands down the road. Others wondered what type of restrictions the city might be able to impose over the permit, such as hours of operation, which it can control, or the kind of alcohol to be sold, which it cannot.
Ultimately, the majority of the council said they were willing to take a chance on the project in the hopes that it will help not hurt downtown.
“There is a little bit of trust here, sir, and I hope you come through for us,” Councilman Gary Wysocky told Badhan.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.