Kudos to Denver: city government gets one right

I think some of us are so used to the frustrations of how local governments sometimes work that we’re shocked when a municipality gets one right. Here in West Denver, for instance, a lot of us have been incensed by the way our elected officials are siding with developers against the needs and express wishes of the people who put them in office.

But by golly, it looks like we can put one in the win column for common sense. Like many cities, Denver has an ordinance aimed at keeping places that serve alcohol away from schools. The thing is, these regulations can result in some utter silliness once you get past the philosophy and begin examining the specifics. Since you can’t very well force existing businesses to close when you pass a new ordinance or when a new school opens nearby, you wind up with a situation like we have in my neighborhood.

The Cesar Chavez Academy is located about a block and half from me at Tennyson and 38th, where the West Highland and Berkeley neighborhoods intersect. CCA is a tuition free school serving, as best I can tell, primarily Latino students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s very much the sort of pro-community anchor you want in a neighborhood like this, so I’m all for anything that protects the integrity of operation and its immediate surroundings.

But here’s the thing. One of my favorite restaurants, DJ’s Berkeley Café, is located maybe 300 feet up the street. A few months back, when I was new in the ‘hood, I asked one of the waiters there why they were only open for breakfast and lunch. This is a place that seriously needs to be serving all meal shifts (some of the best chile verde in the 5280, and it needs to be slathered on a variety of dinner entrées). I was told that the city has an ordinance – no liquor licenses are being granted within 500 feet of schools. And without a liquor license, you’re going to be wasting your time trying to serve dinner.

But…but… I thought about the neighborhood and the other businesses in it. While I’m fully sympathetic with parents and civic leaders who don’t want students getting liquored up during or after school hours, I noted that there’s another restaurant that serves alcohol across the street from CCA and that a student sneaking off campus for a quick cocktail would have to walk directly past two dive taverns and a liquor store on their way to DJ’s. I mean that literally. There are four places with liquor licenses that are closer to that school than DJ’s. At least three of them are decidedly…ummm…grungier. But all of them, I’m guessing, were grandfathered in when this law passed. (Walk an extra block and you’re out of the 500-foot restricted zone and into the amazingly expansive beer menu at Hops & Pie.) In addition, said student sneaking out for a cocktail is going to be 14 years old, tops, and wearing a school uniform.

So, as a practical matter, in my neighborhood you have the application of a law that exists for the sole purpose of keeping one of the best places in the area from better serving the people who live here. Which is silly.

Finally, Denver authorities seem to have figured this out.

Under Colorado state law, retail liquor licenses may not be issued for businesses within 500 feet of a school — and the local licensing authority cannot permit waivers or case-by-case exceptions to the distance restrictions. But as the city’s explanation of its recent maneuver notes, “The law provides, however, that the local authority may eliminate this distance restriction for an entire class of license, or may eliminate one or more type of schools or campuses from its applicability. For example, Denver previously eliminated the applicability of the 500-foot restriction to university campuses.”

And now it has eliminated the 500-foot distance restriction for the entire class of hotel and restaurant liquor licenses, which are issued only to “bona fide restaurants” that must “maintain a certain percentage of gross income from the sale of meals” (as opposed to, say, tavern and cabaret licenses, in which the emphasis is more on liquor and entertainment). And that’s after an applicant has gone through the city’s standard process, which includes a public hearing.

I asked my server the other day if this meant they’d be open for dinner soon. The answer is not right away. They are applying for a liquor license, but since they’re in the middle of opening a new location downtown the thinking is they’ll wait until that’s been put to bed before biting off adding a shift at the Berkeley store.

Can’t. Freakin’. Wait. And I’m guessing there are plenty of similar cases around town, so this is undoubtedly good news for folks in other neighborhoods.

Since I’m always more than willing to hammer officials when they’re doing it wrong, it seems only fair to offer a pat on the back when they get it right. So kudos to Tom Downey, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, City Attorney Doug Friednash, and everyone else in Denver’s city government who helped make this happen.

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