Seattle may extend alcohol-sale limits to much larger area

The alcohol trickles into Jean Sundborg's neighborhood one can of malt liquor at a time, bought by the men she sees sleeping it off in the bushes. She sidesteps the flotsam of crumpled cans on her daily walks.

It seemed an irksome cost of urban living on Lower Queen Anne, until she started collecting the receipts left in the brown paper bags. All came from neighborhood grocery stores.

"I cannot change that a developer is going to develop land in my neighborhood," Sundborg said. "I can ask there be steps taken to reduce alcohol sales."

Seattle, spurred by a flood of such complaints, is hoping to cut off the booze stream. City staff members have drafted a plan to expand the type of alcohol restrictions in Pioneer Square to two large sections of the city — the University District and an area including the Chinatown International District, Lower Queen Anne and Capitol Hill.

The proposal, which staff members hope to present to the City Council next month, would ask merchants within the new boundary to voluntarily stop selling fortified wines and single cans of beer of all types, and to not sell any alcohol from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Liquor distributors say a voluntary ban is doomed to fail, as it did in Pioneer Square, and they expect the city to eventually push for mandatory restrictions.

If the proposal is approved, Seattle would join a growing list of municipalities statewide eager to clean up — if not solve — the problems caused by street alcoholics. It also would mirror a trend of traditionally liberal West Coast cities turning to more aggressive measures.

Neighborhood and business leaders say the 6-square-mile boundary is critical because the Pioneer Square ban, which went into effect in October, has had a "toothpaste-tube" effect of pushing street alcoholics into other urban neighborhoods.

For neighborhoods just outside the proposed boundary — such as Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and Wallingford — the borders may not be big enough.

Capitol Hill has been hardest hit, with a spike in calls to the city's "sobering unit" van for pickup. One Capitol Hill resident said he came home recently to find two homeless and inebriated men in his hot tub.

The proposed ban doesn't call for added treatment services, despite state estimates that less than one in five King County residents who need treatment each year get it. For that reason, City Councilman Nick Licata is skeptical.

"Without addressing the illness of alcoholism, we're just sort of shoving things around the house," he said. "We're not cleaning up the house."

Limited options

An estimated 2,000 chronic street alcoholics live in King County, nearly all in the three downtown Seattle zip codes. The 20 worst offenders among them cost an estimated $2 million a year for police, medical, ambulance and transportation, according to the King County Department of Community and Human Services.

Treatment options are limited. There are only two involuntary treatment centers in the state, and chronic street alcoholics are usually poor candidates for the 227 publicly funded, voluntary treatment beds in King County.

City and county strategies on street alcoholics largely focus on cutting emergency-room and ambulance costs. A city-county agreement created the expanded, 60-bed Dutch Shisler Sobering Center, which provides a warm bed in which to sleep one off.

The city is also backing a novel housing idea, a 75-bed apartment complex at 1811 Eastlake Ave. that would allow chronic alcoholics to continue drinking, within certain restrictions.

The city's support shows it is not solely relying on an alcohol-impact area (AIA) to solve the problem, said Jordan Royer of the city's Department of Neighborhoods.

"We have all these elements in a comprehensive strategy, but people get focused on the AIA because it's sexy," Royer said. "Basically what an AIA does is slow the amount of alcohol these guys can consume in a day."

A mix of critics

The Liquor Control Board's "alcohol-impact area" ordinance has been controversial since it was created in 1999, criticized by merchants, as well as human-services advocates.

"The end goal of the AIA effort is not necessarily to cure the alcoholism," said Lorraine Lee, head of the Liquor Board's regulations division. Instead, it is intended to mitigate "the concentration of negative impacts ... that affect the neighborhood livability."

Tacoma got the first impact area in the state in 2001, covering a 6-square-mile area of downtown and the Hilltop area. Unlike Seattle's proposed ban, which would prohibit all sales of single cans of beer, Tacoma's ordinance blacklists 40 high-alcohol brand names.

By the Liquor Control Board's definition, the ordinance has been a success. Alcohol-related ambulance calls dropped 35 percent in the first year, and admissions for detoxification admission fell 21 percent, according to a Washington State University study.

The ban was credited with helping to revive the embattled Hilltop neighborhood.

But Tacoma's ordinance did little to stop the flow of high-alcohol beers and wines in Tacoma, according to Bob Stevens, vice president of Western Washington Beverage, a liquor distributor in Pierce and King counties.

He distributes one of the banned beers — Steel Reserve, an 8.1 percent alcohol-content beer that is priced cheaper than bottled water. After the ban went into place, sales of Steel Reserve and other banned brands spiked at stores just outside the AIA, he said.

Meanwhile, sales of beers not on the banned list rose within the AIA, Stevens said.

"Nobody quit drinking because of the AIA," he said. "It changed their habits, but it didn't rehab anyone."

Phil Wayt, executive director of the Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, calls alcohol-impact areas "a form of prohibition" that is not backed by science.

He's particularly critical of Seattle's proposed ban, which would apply to all single-beer sales — from Steel Reserve to Guinness — in such a wide residential area.

"There's no evidence that any size can of Coors Light causes a problem," he said. "This appears to be just a quick fix, and it seems very popular among residents who want to move (street alcoholics) someplace else."

Sundborg, the Lower Queen Anne resident, reluctantly agrees: If the city is going to increase housing density in her neighborhood, it must also help maintain its funky, yet upscale character.

"It's easy to be concerned about our own front yards, but it is kind of a NIMBY-ism," she said. "Not in my front yard, not in my back yard, but then it goes into others."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or