Battle for Midtown continues

Neighbors grumble over drunks, businesses grab for fun, city leadership gets a makeover—just another year on the grid

This Thursday is Midtown hot spot BarWest’s one-year anniversary. It’s a party—but not for a handful of persistent, angry neighbors. If they had their way, this Thursday would be BarWest’s last anniversary.

There’s no denying the bar—one of the more recent additions on a J Street entertainment strip that includes Harlow’s, Centro Cocina Mexicana and The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar—is a popular spot for young adults who perhaps like to drink and party a bit too much. But these Midtown residents complain that BarWest crosses the line. That its patrons over-imbibe on cauldronesque cocktails, then pile out after last call into the neighborhood, making noise and a mess—even vandalizing—before driving back home.

“BarWest and other bar/club owners and their patrons create a party scene in Midtown,” resident Dale Kooyman told SN&R in an email, “and are costing the city in [police department] enforcement and loss of nearby businesses.”

Kooyman and about a dozen other neighbors regularly bemoan these Midtown drunks in email communiques to local media and city leaders. They’ve been shooting off these missives for years—a decade, even—and BarWest is just the latest Midtown bar in their crosshairs.

They say the growing concentration of central-city bars and clubs devalues their properties. And squelches quality of life. They lament City Hall, which they say makes it easier for alcohol-serving venues to open and also initiates policy that encourages drunks to park in their neighborhoods rather than garages.

“It is backward and, frankly, ignorant,” resident Tom Wendel argued, “to allow developers and a narrow portion of the business community to decide how to develop a neighborhood based on their perceptions of where a quick buck can be made.”

It’s worth noting that Kooyman, Wendel and their coterie are but a small assembly of neighbors; there are thousands of others, including neighborhood association leaders who spoke with SN&R, who think BarWest and nightspots are just fine.

But this group is a loud one. And passionate. They want something done.

Because, as Wendel asked, “What are BarWest’s owners and patrons doing for Midtown?”

Well, it turns out, BarWest’s does do a few things. And its owner is actually a Midtown resident, as well.

Trevor Shults lives with his wife and young child minutes from BarWest. Some might say his family is the future face of Midtown—and Shults himself a businessman with a new-generation’s vision for the community.

What is that vision, exactly? “Something a little more fun,” he told SN&R.

The restaurateur said when he sees bad press and gripes surrounding his restaurant and bar, he can’t help but dismay. “Negative publicity sucks,” he admitted. “I’m a Midtown resident, too. I have a 1-year-old son and a daughter on the way.”

Shults is also quick to point out that BarWest, despite its party-hard reputation, has a “good line of communication” with leaders at the Marshall School/New Era Neighborhood Association. And BarWest has even hired security to patrol nearby streets on busy nights—and will soon bring in off-duty police, which city leaders say are more effective at trafficking rabble-rousers.

“So when I see ‘BarWest vs. the neighborhood,’ I laugh at it,” Shults said. “It’s BarWest vs. a few neighbors. BarWest isn’t the problem.”

Binge-drinking vandals, cranky neighbors and naive restaurateurs—it’s a battle. But it’s also just one front in Midtown’s latest growing-pains saga.

Now, however, Midtown has a new guard of leadership—what with a newish executive director at the Midtown Business Association and a fresh council member to be elected in November.

“We really have an opportunity now,” is how Beth Hassett, executive director of Women Escaping a Violent Environment and MBA board member, put it. She insisted that this year will be a chance for people to share “their vision for Midtown.”

Midtown’s kumbaya moment became more of a reality earlier this month, when the city council approved the renewal of the MBA’s property business-improvement-district, or PBID. A PBID is a clunky acronym for a really simple idea, namely that some 500 Midtown properties and parcels can be assessed to generate nearly $650,000 in funds, which the MBA then can spend on things such as maintenance, picking up trash, coordinating events and marketing.

Elizabeth Studebaker, who took over as MBA executive director this past December, says she has big plans, and also some elbow-grease-type work, in store for 2013, when the new PBID kicks in.

This includes less-glamorous toil, such as servicing all those new, quaint red trash cans in Midtown, which the MBA installed earlier this year to be more aggressive about litter. And also spending coin—in the past, upward of $85,000 annually—to abate the work of Midtown’s graffiti taggers.

But there are exciting possibilities, too, such as a proposed Midtown-based farmers market near J Street.

Meanwhile, it will be up to either Joe Yee or Steve Hansen—the two candidates for city council’s District 4 seat, which includes Midtown, downtown and most of Land Park—to strike a balance between a growing Midtown economy and watchful residents.

Hansen, who works for biotechnology firm Genentech and placed first in June’s District 4 primary heat, says he’s not interested in “chasing development fees” for revenue, but instead hopes to focus on new ways to build a “stable and sustainable revenue base that is tied to the Midtown economy.”

In nonpolitico speak, this means less building of new stuff just for the sake of generating sales and property taxes and fees.

The candidate said he would forgo his $60,000 council salary as seed money to kick-start a fund that, among other things, might provide microloans to central-city entrepreneurs. Or help connect and build “synergy” among the business leaders who will shape Midtown’s future.

Hansen cited Ground(Ctrl), who is actually based in District 4’s Old Sacramento area, and Midtown software-programmer startup Hacker Lab as two examples from a blossoming tech sector that city leaders should more aggressively embrace.

Joe Yee, a lifelong Sacramentan who placed second in June’s primary, is a veteran of City Hall’s planning commission and told SN&R he hopes Midtown’s future economy includes more “businesses that serve the community.”

He says Midtown’s biggest challenge when it comes to revenue will be how to move forward in a post-Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency world. “Redevelopment is gone. … It’s going to take a while to figure out what to do to replace that,” he said.

One thing Yee did champion is Midtown’s variety—or at least the possibility of growth in that area. “We need diversity of use, diversity of types of businesses, more office spaces,” he said, explaining that more people working in Midtown will bolster the neighborhood.

But, regardless of who’s elected, both candidates will invariably have to sit down for peace accords with neighbors and bar owners. Just probably not at BarWest.