A push to inject vibrancy into Central Richmond’s nightlife scene helped a family business there earn Planning Commission approval to serve liquor until 10 p.m. — even though Richmond police warned the property has been a crime magnet.
The family-owned El Campesino Market at 232 23rd St. closed in November in order to transition from a grocery market with a small eatery into a full-scale authentic Mexican restaurant.
Owners Ignacio and Rosa Bermudez also filed requests with the city to allow their business to open until 1 a.m. from the current 8 p.m. closing mandate. They also asked that their alcoholic beverage license be amended to include liquor as well as wine and beer, as they hope to serve margaritas.
At their Jan. 15 meeting, planning commissioners applauded the idea of a new restaurant bringing life to an area that becomes ominously quiet at night. But the plan met opposition from police, neighbors and representatives of service organizations in the neighborhood that assist people with substance abuse problems.
“Service organizations in the area include Rubicon, the Native American Health Center, and soon the West Contra Costa Family Justice Center,” said local resident Kate Sibley. “Those can all be deeply effected by a business like this.”
The Police Department opposed “the entire application” due to the building’s troubled past in the community that includes allegations of gang activity. In July 2011, following a gang-related homicide, El Campesino shut its doors and barred investigators from interviewing witnesses, said Sgt. Mike Rood of RPD’s regulatory unit. The business has also been busted in the past for serving alcohol to minors, including a November 2011 incident during which a 17-year-old was killed in a car crash after leaving the establishment, Rood said.
Rood also recalled a 2006 drive-by homicide at the car stereo shop located behind the restaurant at 24th and Exchange. Neighbors say the car stereo shop is at the center of the building’s problems. The Bermudez family leases to the business on a month-to-month basis.
The “large calls for service” for disorderly conduct and fights have been “a huge drain on police patrol resources,” Rood said.
The family has denied involvement in the crime activity. They say they’ve made investments in recent years to increase safety in the area. In the last few years, the business has not been busted for serving to minors, Ignacio Bermudez Jr. said. Sixteen security cameras have been installed on the interior and exterior of the building, and owners have pledged to add a security guard when allowed to open late.
“I’m not against the community; I’m for the community,” Bermudez said.
The family received support from Planning Commissioner Roberto Reyes, who works at nearby Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP) and frequently walks and bikes past the building. Reyes, along with other commissioners and some neighbors, say it is unfair to put the neighborhood’s crime problems on one family’s shoulders.
“I’ve known this family for about five years; I watched them come into this community and invest in a couple sites in Richmond and watched them try to turn that business around,” he said. “All the while, I’ve watched (the city) do a whole lot of nothing about the crime in that area.”
Several commissioners, including Reyes, took issue with the fact that the Bermudez family choose to lease building space to the stereo auto business, which neighbors call the main problem spot.
But that did not sway commissioners’ desire for restaurants that open late and other nightlife in the mixed commercial/residential corridor.
“Central Richmond needs more restaurants that are open later, maybe even more bars,” Commissioner Andrew Butt said. “It needs vibrance.”
While “troubled by the testimony from neighbors and businesses,” Butt said he wanted to give the family a chance to prove they can be responsible neighbors.
“I think there’s some fence repair [needed] on the part of the applicant,” Butt said.
Commissioners ultimately agreed to allow liquor to be sold at the El Campesino, but until 10 p.m. rather than the initially requested 1 a.m.
Reyes said he’s been talking with city staff about other ideas to create an economic hub in the area, including livable corridor projects and the creation of an artist’s district.