Protests against Highly Likely. (Angela Gonzales-Torres / LA Public Press)

HIGHLAND PARK — Angela Gonzales-Torres has no problem with a cheeky Fig Leaf Negroni served up on a laid-back patio on a Tuesday afternoon. She does have a problem with her neighborhood turning into a playground for the rich, she said, which is why she filed with the California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to protest Highly Likely and its alcohol permit when the restaurant opened in Highland Park last July. 

“I was photographing these staple establishments — the 98 Cent Store, the affordable taco spot, Coco’s bakery — that had either closed or were sold during the pandemic,” said Gonzales-Torres, a longtime Highland Park resident and anthropology researcher at UCLA. “And I noticed these businesses being replaced in Highland Park, particularly on Figueroa Street, with five notices to sell alcoholic beverages at once.” 

Signs from a protest against Highly Likely’s opening in Highland Park. (Angela Gonzales-Torres / LA Public Press)

Gonzales-Torres, now president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, has long been part of a coalition of residents filing protests and pointing to an over-concentration of alcohol permits across Los Angeles. On March 7, the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council issued a community impact statement opposing the Restaurant Beverage Program (RBP), a city ordinance that fast-tracks alcohol permit approval and bypasses public hearings. Highland Park’s City District 1 is the last remaining to adopt the program and is currently considering its position on the ordinance, according to communication between Gonzales-Torres and the CD 1 office.

The statement followed a public letter penned last July by Gonzales-Torres and Mercedes Gonzalez, a longtime resident of Echo Park and Council District 13, in which they requested a town hall with Councilmembers Hugo Soto-Martinez and Eunisses Hernandez. In the letter, Gonzalez expressed a need to restore balance in the Echo Park and Silverlake neighborhoods, where ABC exceeds standards of undue concentration with 133 on-sale active alcohol permits in the area. 

“All of our resources are being taken out of the community, and [the community is] just being thrown more alcohol permits,” said Gonzalez in an interview with LA Public Press. “The elderly are missing pharmacies we once had. There’s no place to have an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting, because the Echo Park Methodist Church is being forced to close.”

In October, Gonzalez filed an alcohol permit protest against organic grocery chain Sprouts Farmers Market — where a carton of a dozen eggs can cost as high as $12.99 — that is replacing a Rite-Aid pharmacy and former homeless encampment site in Echo Park. At a meeting with the Echo Park Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee in February, Gonzalez asked a Sprouts representative to consider an in-store pharmacy to serve elderly and sick community members who can no longer easily access medication or affordable household essentials. 

“It has nothing to do with being against small businesses,” Gonzalez said. “It has everything to do with who these businesses want to bring in, and who they’re ignoring — a large portion of the community that has been in place for so many years.”

After COVID-19 closures forced nearly 122,700 layoffs for restaurant workers in LA, city councilmembers voted in 2022 to adopt the RBP, which cut the administrative fee to obtain an alcohol permit from about $13,000 down to $4,000. The ordinance also streamlined a state-run, months-long Conditional Use Permit clearance process — like the one Sprouts Farmers Market had to use as a grocery store — down to a few weeks for sit-down restaurants. 

“I understand that [the RBP was created] to help businesses during the pandemic, but we’re being told by the enforcement team at ABC — who are supposed to look into DUIs, underage serving, and imbalances in our neighborhoods — that they’re short on staff,” Gonzales-Torres said. “Now, we have more bars than any other service for our youth or our elderly.”

RBP applications are processed separately from California ABC by eight planners in the City Planning’s Beverage and Entertainment Streamlining (BESt) unit, after which a specialized inspector conducts inspections sometime in the first two years of approval, an LA City spokesperson told LA Public Press. Since 2022, the RBP has authorized 154 alcohol permits.

Community members protest Highly Likely’s opening in Highland Park. (Angela Gonzales-Torres / LA Public Press)

The Institute for Public Strategies calculated that over a third of census tracts in Los Angeles severely exceeded guidelines for alcohol permit density by about 300 percent as of 2019. Of those tracts, 65 percent also had above average crime rates — including DUIs and hit-and-runs — in East LA neighborhoods like Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Echo Park, and Highland Park.  

“CD 14, which includes Lincoln Heights, has the highest eviction rate in all of Los Angeles — people are losing their homes left and right,” said Fernanda Sanchez, president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council. “We also are the third district with the highest alcohol permits, which is about to get even higher, because CD 14 just adopted the RBP program.” 

 “How is that a healthy solution to a community that’s in crisis?” Sanchez added. 

A 2020 study by the LA County Department of Public Health found that communities with a high concentration of alcohol outlets in LA County were over twice as likely to have high rates of alcohol-related hospitalizations and deaths, even after adjusting for social determinants like socioeconomic status, minority status, housing type and household composition. 

“What we actually need is mental health resources and permanent, affordable housing,” Sanchez said. “In many ways, our communities are full of trauma, and alcohol abuse is very common. With [the RBP], we’re exploiting our vulnerabilities for profit.” 

California ABC also enforces its own requirements for issuing alcohol permits. It can deny any retail license within the immediate vicinity of churches and hospitals, or within 600 feet of schools, public playgrounds and nonprofit youth facilities. It only denies these permits when licensed premises fail to serve “public welfare and morals.”

In October, Gonzalez filed another protest against SoCal chain Breakfast Republic’s request for an alcohol permit at its new Echo Park location. She pointed to the ten other alcohol permits within a mile radius, as well as the restaurant’s close proximity to Logan Elementary and Gabriella Charter School, Edendale Library, and youth nonprofit El Centro De Pueblo. Both Gonzalez and Gonzales-Torres have yet to receive an Administrative hearing date and notice of investigation from ABC after filing their protests

Signs from a recent protest. (Mercedes Gonzalez / LA Public Press)

In December, Sanchez helped file an appeal against two alcohol permits requested by Juntos Market, a new upscale 7,850 square-foot market and restaurant in Chinatown. She was joined by Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, the Historic Cultural North Neighborhood Council, and 78 other residents who signed a petition opposing the permit. They cited an over-concentration of alcohol-related uses, proximity to existing breweries like Homage Brewing and Highland Park Brewery, and the market being located just across the street from Ann Street Elementary School and William Mead Homes public housing development. 

The zoning administrator for the case approved an alcohol permit for 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. service and denied Juntos a second wine and beer license, requiring that the market accept EBT cards and try to keep their tacos affordable enough for the surrounding community. 

“William Mead is a couple streets down from LA Historic Park, which has concert venues and a bunch of breweries up and down that street,” Sanchez said. “These neighbors appealed this alcohol permit because they deal with party-goers peeing and defecating on their lawns and their rose bushes.”

Because the city does not allow public hearing in the approval process, Sanchez said it often takes an army of community members to research, organize, and advocate for basic input in the form of a protest or an appeal. 

“These are seniors that have lived there for 30 years,” Sanchez said. “These are our most vulnerable people in our communities, and they had zero say in what happened to this alcohol permit unless it was appealed, and it should not be like that.”

In an Alcohol Sensitive Use Zone, for communities “burdened with public health and safety issues,” the RBP requires a notification to the neighborhood council after authorization and places the restaurant on a one-year provisional period.  

“More will be learned in the coming year regarding compliance with RBP standards,” said an LA City Spokesperson to LA Public Press. “Requests for proactive inspections of restaurants under RBP do not begin until later this year.”

To preempt community concerns, the RBP emphasizes that the streamlined process is open only to sit-down restaurants, not bars. Its extensive eligibility criteria includes that the restaurant must have an operational kitchen and full menu served at all hours, operate between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and have a minimum of 10 patron seats. 

But for Gonzales-Torres, skyrocketing rent doesn’t discriminate between high-end restaurants and fancy bars. Nearly a third of residents in Highland Park’s CD 1 are below the poverty level, and around 79 percent of residents live in rental-occupied units, according to the census. Small businesses don’t need cheaper alcohol permits, she said. They need cheaper rent. 

Highly Likely in Highland Park. (Angela Gonzales-Torres / LA Public Press)

“If you look at Figueroa, we have [around] 20 permits in a five block radius. That tells other landlords, the person next to you is asking this much for rent, maybe you can, too — and smaller businesses who can’t satisfy that rent are priced out,” she said. “It shouldn’t be so expensive to the point where we can’t have mom-and-pop-shops anymore, because their landlords might want to invite a Highly Likely to satisfy an egregious amount of rent.”

Highland Park used to have a family-owned skate shop and a bookstore across from Highly Likely, where the community hosted free and family-friendly events, said Gonzales-Torres. Sanchez used to pull up to neighborhood rotisserie shop Chappalitas in Lincoln Heights, which was replaced by a wine and beer deli.

“We’re predominantly monolingual, immigrant, working-class communities,” said Sanchez, “and these aren’t our safe spaces anymore.”

Gonzalez remembered when La Guadalupana, a low-priced Hispanic grocery store in Echo Park with a carniceria in the back, closed in 2018 after it could no longer afford rent. Or, when A Grocery Warehouse, a staple Asian market on Sunset Boulevard, was bought out by developers as part of a $9.5 million deal in 2017 and has remained unoccupied since, pending conversion to restaurant and residential space. 

“Sometimes, I’m walking around Highland Park, and I feel like I’m not even a stranger in my own home — I’m an unwanted guest,” said Gonzales-Torres. “I don’t feel like any of these businesses are trying to cater to those of us who grew up here, who want to have some semblance of home and safety.”

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