Environmental attorney Marc Chytilo’s impressive hot streak went decidedly cold Tuesday afternoon, as the Santa Barbara City Council rejected his best efforts to slow down or derail attempts to locate an 8,700-square-foot BevMo! — an upscale liquor chain — in the abandoned Thomasville furniture storefront at the intersection of State and De la Vina streets. Chytilo, formerly with the Environmental Defense Center, has rung up a string of notable legal and political victories in the past year, representing clients opposing a gamut of development projects up and down the coast. But Chytilo was brought in late in the game to represent an ad hoc collection of San Roque residents and business owners — known as Breathe Easy Santa Barbara — worried that a new BevMo! in their backyard could adversely affect their quality of life or gross receipts. He sought to compensate for lost time, throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at BevMo! and its attorney Doug Fell, with whom Chytilo has crossed swords many times.
Chytilo argued that the traffic and commerce generated by BevMo! would be too intense for the surrounding San Roque neighborhood. He asked the council to overturn the approval bestowed upon BevMo! by the Architectural Board of Review, saying it was flawed because it violated the 20-foot setback requirements suggested in the Upper State Street Guidelines Study — recently endorsed by the city council. The additional 16 peak-hour trips traffic engineers estimate BevMo! will generate, he said, could seriously diminish the level of service at as many as four nearby intersections. And motorists drawn to the regional liquor outlet, he went on, would hamper city efforts to make the nearby streets more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Chytilo charged that the building itself — which he described as having “a massive forehead” — was out of character with the surrounding neighborhood and would “loom over State Street for decades to come.” He dissed BevMo! as a predatory “big-box retailer,” asking, “How many other liquor stores need to close in order to constitute urban blight for this project?” Ideally, Chytilo wanted the council to kill the project outright; failing that, he sought an environmental impact report; and failing that, a traffic study.
But as much as councilmembers sympathized with neighborhood concerns about potential traffic and parking problems, they found themselves hard-pressed to find a defensible reason to say no. The property in question is zoned to allow for retail operations like BevMo! The company is taking an existing building and reusing it, and it’s actually knocking down nearly one-third of the existing structure to make room for more parking spaces. According to the traffic engineers, BevMo! is providing more parking than its employees and its customers will need. And BevMo! took pains not to ask that any rules be bent in seeking approval.
Jeff Sealy, BevMo!’s vice president in charge of real estate and construction, delivered an enthusiastic sales pitch, explaining how the company started in 1994 and now is a two-state chain with 104 outlets that offer 3,000 wines and 800 craft beers. Not only does BevMo! sell wine glasses, cheeses, and snack foods, but it offers wine tastings every Friday night from 5 to 7. But what BevMo! absolutely does not do, Sealy stressed, is sell tobacco products of any kind, malt liquor, fortified wine, lottery tickets, or adult magazines. No one under 21 will ever be allowed to enter any BevMo! and the company aggressively engages in underage sting operations on its own stores. Sealy concluded his pep talk/slide show with the exhortation, “Santa Barbara, it’s time to BevMo!”
Chytilo did not walk away from the fray completely empty-handed. Many councilmembers shared his concern that BevMo! employees might take to parking in the surrounding neighborhoods, a charge frequently leveled against employees of the nearby Trader Joe’s. To prevent this from happening, Councilmember Dale Francisco led the charge to impose enforceable conditions of approval that would require BevMo! workers to park on the premises. He also pushed for conditions to ensure that the lumbering delivery trucks plying BevMo! with wine, beer, and spirits would not become a nuisance to the neighborhood. BevMo!’s Sealy readily agreed, saying employees would be given special decals to put in their windshields. That way, he said, if they parked in the neighborhoods, it would be readily apparent.
The matter comes back to the council in the next two to three weeks to hammer out the language of the approval conditions.