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Although the Mission District is about to mark the 18th anniversary of a ban on new liquor licenses, it’s now easier than ever to get a cocktail in the neighborhood.

Since the moratorium began in 1996, 156 restaurants have been licensed to sell beer and wine in the neighborhood, 39 restaurants obtained a full liquor license, two new bars have opened and three more stores sell beer and wine, according to data from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. That’s because the ban restricts new liquor licenses but doesn’t prevent a business owner from buying a license from elsewhere in the city. Moreover, there are few restrictions on selling beer and wine.

California law limits the number of bars, clubs and restaurants in a county to one for every 2,000 inhabitants. Stores selling alcohol are limited to one for every 2,500 inhabitants and stores selling beer and wine are limited to one for each 1,250 residents, according to Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Some believe the Mission moratorium should be lifted, while others want to first have a community discussion. There are also residents and community leaders who believe the ban should be strengthened.

“There’s a definite need to rethink some of it, because we’re seeing a shift in the Mission,” said Christina Olague, former president of the Planning Commission and now District 5 supervisor.

Map showing the boundaries of the Mission Alcoholic Beverages Special Use District. Source: SF Planning Department.

Officials put the moratorium, known as the Mission Alcohol Special Use District, in place in 1996 as a way to combat crime, noise and public drunkenness.

“The actual bill as it was written was really good,” said Leslie Hennessy, owner of Hennessy’s and former president of the California Beverage Merchants Association. “It got rid of the bad apples — the bad apples are the ones who sell to the already intoxicated homeless people.”

In the mid-1990s, then-Supervisor Susan Leal proposed making a temporary ban permanent. “Mission residents and businesspeople have been troubled for years about the problems of crime, loitering and harassment outside liquor stores,” Leal said at the time. “We are now putting into place permanent legislation to … make the Mission a safer place to live.”

For some, these issues remain today.

Data shows that in 1995-96, there were 2,775 emergency room visits to San Francisco General Hospital that resulted in an alcohol-related diagnosis. From 2010 to 2011, the number jumped to 3,777, according to hospital figures.

Alcohol abuse extends beyond those who can legally drink.

“I see more kids with alcohol issues,” said Maria Salcedo, a case manager at the Central American Resource Center. Anyone who has issues with alcohol is at greater risk when surrounded by more establishments that sell alcohol, she said.

Others, including Supervisor Scott Wiener, argue that the moratorium no longer makes sense.

“I think that the Mission Alcoholic Beverage Special Use Subdistrict is outdated; it’s gone well beyond what it was meant to do,” Wiener said. “It undermines economic vibrancy in the Mission. It’s time for it to go.”

The ban, he said, only encourages certain types of businesses.

“We’ve freeze-framed the kind of business that can open. Why are we only encouraging full-service restaurants?” he said, referring to the fact that the ban doesn’t include restaurants.

“I wouldn’t want a neighborhood where it’s only full-service restaurants — I want the whole range.”

Some believe that range is already readily available. The Mission has more than 39 bars, 77 liquor stores, 13 stores that sell beer and wine, 68 restaurants with full bars and 226 restaurants that sell beer and wine. Recently, the Planning Commission approved a change in the moratorium that will allow the new bowling alley planned for 17th Street to serve alcohol. Another exception was made for the Roxie Theater.

Both are in parts of the neighborhood where a drink is never more than a block’s walk away.

Lifting the moratorium completely would mean even more places to drink in the neighborhood — an outcome that many believe warrants a discussion.

“I can see that there is a way in which the moratorium is being circumvented, and I think that there should definitely be a discussion on how best to handle the issue,” Supervisor David Campos said when informed of the increase in beer and wine licenses.

There needs to be a “community process that engages people — not only people who were here when the moratorium was put in place, but the new residents who are now living in that neighborhood,” Campos said. “We have made it clear that the lifting of the moratorium would be such a significant step that it would require process. That’s why the focus has been instead to do [it] through individual exceptions.”

Without that community process, Campos said, he wouldn’t support lifting the ban.

In the meantime, businesses opening in the Mission are finding ways to get around it.

For many restaurants, being able to serve alcohol is a key part of the business plan. When Dosa owners Emily and Anjan Mitra submitted their application for a full liquor license to the Planning Commission in 2010, they wrote, “Without this important consistency in our product offering, we feel our original location, the one before you today at the 995 Valencia Street, will not remain financially successful over the long run.”

“A lot of restaurants are opening, there’s this whole foodie thing. It’s become the foodie capital of the West,” said Olague, adding that customers want to have the option of buying drinks when going out to eat.

“San Francisco is becoming more and more a cocktail capital and a broader culinary capital,” Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told Mission Loc@l earlier this year. “A high-end cocktail is becoming something that customers are expecting as part of their diner experience.”

Some new restaurants are able to obtain liquor licenses through the transfer of existing permits. The soon-to-open West of Pecos, in the former Bombay Bazaar, was able to get a full liquor license transferred from Carlos’s Club on 24th Street.

Tacolicious and Mosto, the bar within the restaurant, got a full liquor license transferred from Restaurant Cassis at 2101 Sutter St. At 777 Valencia, the soon-to-be Chapel Restaurant and Preservation Hall West got a full liquor license transferred from La Salsa restaurant at Pier 39. Mission Bowling purchased its liquor license from Jenny’s Restaurant and Bar at 1098 Sutter St.

To deal with the concerns, the Mission police station has added restrictions for new businesses. In the fall, the Planning Commission approved a full liquor license for West of Pecos only if the owners agreed to stop selling alcohol at midnight on weekends and at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday nights. However, bars on the same street stay open until 2 a.m.

In 1996, Ray Balberan, who worked with youth at the Real Alternatives Project and is a recovering alcoholic, spoke out in favor of the moratorium. Today he thinks it should be strengthened.

“I think [the moratorium] was really to cut back on corner stores popping up all over the place,” he said, adding that access to alcohol for youth is still a problem.

“I think there’s enough alcohol out there.”

Roberto Alfaro, an alcohol abuse counselor at the Mission Council who has been sober for 22 years, agreed. However, he believes availability of alcohol isn’t the problem.

“Alcoholism doesn’t work that way. In California, you can’t buy a drink after 2 a.m., but an alcoholic will still find ways to buy alcohol.”