Police, neighborhood activist push to create 'alcohol impact area'

On hot summer afternoons, David Miezan can look outside the store and, under the shady tree on the sidewalk, see his customers gathered there, drinking bottles of malt liquor from paper bags.

They're drinking 40-ounce bottles of 211 Steel Reserve, Olde English, Mickey's and the other beverages with high alcohol content that sell for $2.94 at local grocery and convenience stores.

'I can smell them two, three, four feet away from me,' says Miezan, who works at the 7-Eleven store at the busy corner of North St. Louis Avenue and Lombard Street in St. Johns. 'I send them away.'

It's this population that North Precinct police officers are working to reduce by trying to get St. Johns designated an 'alcohol impact area.' The action would ban the sale of malt liquor and fortified wine in containers larger than 16 ounces, popular with street drinkers because they're cheap, easy to carry and deliver the most alcohol bang for the buck.

The proposal, expected to reach the Portland City Council soon, would affect the dozens of grocery stores, convenience stores and taverns with off-premises licenses within the neighborhood boundaries.

The council will decide whether it wants to petition the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to make the alcohol impact area a rule, which would be reviewed in one year.

If the proposal is adopted Ñ a process that probably would take several months Ñ it would be the first of its kind in the state.

There are two other alcohol impact areas in Portland Ñ Old Town-Chinatown and the Central Eastside Industrial District. But both were created by a different process, in which police, retailers and the Bureau of Licenses jointly tackled the problem.

Police said street drinking is associated with panhandling, loitering, public urination and litter, and the culprits take up an inordinate amount of officers' time on the street.

St. Johns neighborhood activist John Farra has been working on the current effort for the past two years, initially hoping to have all of the North Precinct designated as an alcohol impact area.

However, he said he's pleased with the current proposal. Last month, the Portland Police Bureau presented him with a community policing problem-solving award for his efforts.

'We can only wait so long,' Farra said. 'It's designed for areas that have a very high concentration (of street drinkers). The intent is to break that up. That may cause it to go elsewhere. But I don't think St. Johns can handle that concentration. There's literally no place to put folks.'

A small group of business owners opposes the idea. Members of the Korean American Grocers Association, which represents 10 merchants in the St. Johns area, believe that they would lose out to competition just outside its boundaries, according to their attorney, Mike Reed.

'Certainly, people that want those products are going to go elsewhere to get them,' Reed said. 'Do the people who buy these products also buy a substantial amount of products in the store? If that's the case, then all the stores in this area are going to lose business to a store a mile away.

'The only way it doesn't affect these businesses is if the people who buy these products change products.'

Reed also argued that the alcohol impact area probably would displace the dozen or so street drinkers to just outside the neighborhood boundaries.

He cites the fact that when the OLCC designated the city's first alcohol impact area in Old Town in 1992, the Central Eastside Industrial District soon had to create its own alcohol impact area after seeing an overflow of street drinkers appear on the east side of the Burnside Bridge.

Farra said the displacement is inevitable. He said the St. Johns businesses had the option to stop selling the offending beverages voluntarily last summer when he and Chris Brace, a neighborhood response team officer, tried to institute a voluntary ban. Brace said few if any businesses complied.

Reed said the grocers simply didn't want to lose sales to the competition.

'They asked store owners to sign something that few if any of the store owners were willing to do unless everyone did it,' Reed said. 'I think they just gave up on that effort and figured the way to get everyone to do it is to do an alcohol impact area.'

Reed said his other suggestions on ways to reduce street drinking were ignored. For example, he said, grocers could post photos of known street drinkers at their registers so they could refuse sales to those people.

Jim Hayden, the deputy district attorney who worked on the issue, said there were legal problems with that proposal and others that Reed suggested.

Until the ordinance is passed, Brace said, he's concerned with the conditions on the street this summer, when more people drink out in public. 'People are going to be upset,' he said.

Besides St. Johns' demographics Ñ it has many low-income and minority households Ñ the area attracts so many street drinkers because there is such a large concentration of convenience stores and taverns in the area, Brace says.

Apparently, street drinkers aren't very predictable. On a recent sunny afternoon, the sidewalks in St. Johns were filled with children walking home from school, shoppers and people doing yardwork. A few transients sat on park benches, but no street drinkers were visible.

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