Possible alcohol ban riles organizers

A last-minute recommendation to ban alcohol sales from Washington Square Park at the North Beach Festival this June has the organizers up in arms.

The outdoor festival, now in its 52nd year, is billed as a celebration of North Beach’s Italian heritage and Beat history, and features arts and crafts booths, food vendors, chalk art, an animal blessing and live entertainment.

Drawing more than 75,000 attendees over two days, the free event’s centerpiece is a live music stage located within Washington Square Park. The art and food is placed on several surrounding streets that are closed down for the festival.

Sponsored by the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, it takes almost a full year to plan the annual event. The event hasn’t changed much over the past fifteen years, said Marsha Garland, the chamber’s executive director. She was alarmed when The City’s Recreation and Park Department contacted her to say that they were recommending that this year’s event not include alcohol in the park.

The recommendation, according to department spokeswoman Rose Dennis, came as a result of staff discussions with the neighboring community and the San Francisco Police Department, as well as past events that some saw as just a “boozy party.” The department also expressed concern about the two “beer gardens” — areas sectioned off only for over-21 drinkers — that would be established in the park, thus limiting the remaining park space for children and other park visitors.

There are two other beer gardens that have been approved for placement near the arts and crafts booths, but those places are less popular since they’re not near the live entertainment. Alcohol consumption is not permitted outside of the beer garden areas.

Fior d’Italia owner Bob Larive said the event was not only a big booster for the North Beach businesses, but it was a “fun” event.

“It’s what San Francisco should be,” said Larive, who disagreed with the Recreation and Park Department’s recommendation. “Most of the people want to congregate in the park and have a glass of beer or wine and listen to the music.”

Some neighborhood residents say that the park is already popular with locals who don’t like getting pushed out to make room for the beer gardens.

“We disapprove of the sale of alcohol because then it’s barricaded. The park is our park, it’s used on weekends primarily by people who don’t have backyards,” said community activist Herb Kosovitz, who has lived near the park since 1971.

Some business owners say they support the sale of alcohol, since it generates needed revenue to help pay for the free event. According to Garland, the annual event costs $250,000 to produce, with revenue from beer and wine sales picking up more than one-quarter of that tab.

One merchant said that even though he makes money in his shop each year as a result of the festival, he’d still like to see it toned down.

“They have the alcohol because it’s their biggest moneymaker, but then you have people running around drunk,” said Imre Varkevei, owner of 101 Music on Grant Avenue. “They don’t know how to control it, so it’s not a good thing.”

beslinger@examiner.com

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