North Beach Festival still debating booze sales

Although the annual two-day North Beach Festival is scheduled to take place in less than two weeks, it remains up in the air whether participants will be allowed to drink alcohol in Washington Square Park.

For the second year, a debate about alcoholic beverages at the 53-year-old event is pitting fair organizers against some neighbors who say the park is for families, not partiers. City officials are trapped in the middle of the feud.

“It’s a difficult position to try to balance everybody’s concerns at an event that attracts thousands and thousands of people,” said Rose Marie Dennis, spokeswoman for the Recreation and Park Department, which grants liquor permits for events in public spaces. “There is a clash of opinion about what booze does to the event.”

The North Beach Festival, centered inWashington Square Park and on four adjacent blocks in San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood, is The City’s oldest street fair. More than 100,000 visitors gather for the live music, poetry readings and art booths at the event each year.

In the last few years, however, there has been a growing movement among some neighborhood groups to dry up events where alcohol has traditionally flowed. For the first time, there will be no alcohol at Sunday’s Haight Ashbury Street Fair because neighbors complained about drunken people urinating in doorways and trashing the streets. The How Weird Street Faire, held in a South of Market neighborhood, has been canceled for the same reasons.

Last year, The City’s Recreation and Park Commission denied the North Beach Festival a liquor permit because of neighbors’ concerns about noise, drunken fairgoers and minors being barred from the park.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, however, brokered a compromise that allowed people to buy alcohol from beer gardens on Union Street and drink them in a designated part of Washington Square Park, one of The City’s oldest parks.

That deal has not been carried over to this year’s event, and debate has picked up where it left off last year.

Festival planners say alcohol sales financially support the event. Beyond that, there are cultural reasons for wanting adults to have the option of enjoying beer and wine in the park, as they have for decades.

“This is the oldest festival of its kind in the country,” said Marsha Garland, executive director of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the festival. “People who live in big cities need events.”

The Recreation and Park Commission will discuss the alcohol issue and take action at 2 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

arocha@examiner.com


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