Concerns about public drinking in North Beach and stifled public debate are conspiring to cripple a pair of popular outdoor festivals, possibly creating a troubling precedent for other events at the start of San Francisco's festival and street fair season.
"We'll have to cancel this year's festival," Robbie Kowal, who runs the North Beach Jazz Festival, said of the possibility of not getting his alcohol permit. "Seventy-five percent of our funding comes from the sale of alcohol."
The Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee is set to review the jazz festival's permit May 3, and if sentiments among the three mayor-appointed commissioners haven't changed, they might not allow Kowal and his partners, John Miles and Alistair Monroe, to set up bars and serve drinks to local jazz fans in Washington Square Park, as they've been doing without challenge for the past 12 years.
"We've never even had a hearing to get a permit before," Kowal said. "We've had no arrests and no [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] violations. We're being punished when we haven't done anything wrong. We're caught up in this whole North Beach Festival situation."
Kowal was referring to a dispute involving the neighborhood's other popular street fair, the North Beach Festival, a 52-year street fair that had its permission to sell alcohol in the park yanked this year. The festival is hosted by the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, whose director, Marsha Garland, is a political adversary of the area’s supervisor, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin.
The problem started when parks general manager Yomi Agunbiade determined that a long-standing ban on alcohol in city parks should also apply during festivals. Two out of three members of the Rec and Park Commission’s Operations Committee agreed with that ruling during an April 5 meeting, and it became official policy.
Then, as the North Beach Festival permit went to the full commission for approval April 20, the words "permission to serve beer and wine" disappeared from the agenda item. Those words had appeared on an earlier version of the agenda, allowing the commission to grant what Garland had received with every permit for the last 20 years. The agenda change meant the commission couldn't even discuss the alcohol issue, let allow issue a permit that allowed it.
Commissioner Jim Lazarus questioned a representative of the City Attorney's Office about it and was told that the full commission couldn't hear the policy if the general manager and Operations Committee were in agreement.
"I was taken aback by the fact that the full request of the applicant to serve beer and wine was not on the calendar," Lazarus told us. "I've been on the commission for three and a half years, and I've never seen that happen before for this kind of issue."
This story is still unfolding, but observers are openly wondering whether this is an isolated case of political sabotage or whether this battle over beer could hurt the summer festival season.
Wine and beer sales have always played a critical role in the financial viability of many of the city's summer festivals. In a city that's never been afraid of a liberal pour, many are beginning to wonder if the good times are over, and if so, why?
"The Rec and Park meeting was so disheartening, and if it's used as a precedent in any way, it will harm other events. If the oldest street fair in this city can be chipped away at like that, who's next?" said Lindsey Jones, executive director of SF Pride, the largest LGBT festival in the country.