Playing With Politics

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Planning Confidential: Time to Embrace the Neighborhood Bar

Posted by Roobs on May 14, 2013

The other day I read an article announcing that the beloved UCLA hangout bar, Westwood Brewing Company (aka: BrewCo), would be closing this summer; to be replaced by a chain seafood restaurant.  The loss of this college-age oriented hangout is yet another loss for the student population in Westwood, and an example of the constant struggle for identity of this urban village between the wealthy homeowners and student population.  What urban planners have always been willing to argue is that street-level retail and restaurants are essential.  But what they are less likely, though arguably always thinking, is that neighborhoods need bars.  It’s time we get over our reservations and embrace the benefits and necessity of a neighborhood bar in urban planning and development.

As the cities of America continue to see increases in population and popularity, they are moving away from the old paradigm of the mid-20th Century where people worked in downtowns but consume goods in the closer-to-home periphery.   Density is bringing people closer to the urban core and the lower costs of transportation allow residents to fulfill their needs and preferences locally.  The real estate blog Movoto recently released a survey showing the 10 Most Exciting Cities in America, which takes into account the density of experiences available, including bars per square foot, and further evidence of an increasing market demand.

The problem that has traditionally followed bars has been the “nuisance” complaint – that bars attract a large group of people who will consume alcohol (obviously) and belligerently leave the bar, cause loud noise, litter, loiter, and attract crime.  This complaint seems to be found among existing homeowners, those who are older, and the more conservative, while the opposite seems to be true among new residents regardless of age.  As the naysayers are usually the ones who show up at public meetings, this severely hinders the ability to create a complete neighborhood with a local bar (more on the naysayers in a future post on NIMBYs).  While the nuisance complaint can be true to a limited extent (there will always be that obnoxious douche at a bar), this argument tends to overshadow the positive effects bars have on a neighborhood.

Bars are social gathering spaces like parks

Think of the most entertaining and vibrant neighborhood or street you’ve visited over the years.  Most likely, there were bars in or on them.  Bars are these great places in neighborhoods that serve as social gathering spaces in a similar way that one would expect from a park.  Michael Hickey, a community development consultant, does a good job explaining why a bars inclusion is an essential part to a vibrant neighborhood: a “third-space”.

“The vaunted ‘third space’ isn’t home, and isn’t work – it’s more like the living room of society at large. It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle.

And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar.”

As Hickey points out, bars are great places of social gathering that bring people out of their apartments or jobs and let them simply “hang out”.  We meet friends and co-workers, but we also meet our neighbors.  We build parks for this same reason and we expect this from a café, but it would be wrong to assume that those PG rated establishments are the only spaces for such social interaction.  Instead of an overly-priced cup of coffee, a decent neighborhood bar offers something for all income levels.  While we can no doubt throw down a lot of money at a bar on a good (or bad) day, a casual neighborhood bar is a relatively inexpensive experience.  Sometimes you just want to get away for a beer and burger.

Vibrant and safer streets

The idea of bars making streets safer seems incredibly odd to many people.  But it can be easily true.  First, I must concede that it is not a blanket truth for all bars and entirely depends on context of the neighborhood.  But bars can definitely make a street safer.  The reason is that it does one thing really well: it brings people to a street and provides the ever lauded “eyes on the street”.  The argument against this depends entirely on the assumption that ALL patrons of bars are completely drunk, which is unrealistic.  Seriously, do you get wasted every time you go to a bar?  (If you answered yes, please click here.)

When a bar is great and popular, you also have brought in a constant stream of consumers to your retail street.  On weekends in West Hollywood, California (I live here), some bars open in the morning for brunches, others in the afternoon for sporting events, and the rest at their usual evening times.  The point is that when they open, people begin to walk back and forth between the bars on Santa Monica Blvd. throughout the city. As they move they visit local shops, stop and eat at local restaurants, or relax at local parks.  The weekend becomes an inclusive local experience, triggered by this third-space that serves as a “home-base” for the outing.  Sure, let’s meet up for lunch and then go to a bar and hangout for a bit.

The above is also evidence we need to bring bars into the context of the complete neighborhood – a place where one can achieve the bulk of their activities within walking distance or short transit ride from their home.  Not only does this mean that we want to shop and eat near our residence, but we also want the ability to go out – to spend good times with friends and enjoy a beer or cocktail if we want; to find a bar to watch the game.  When we don’t have a bar nearby, we lack that special place where we can simply mix, mingle, and drink.  Without it, we are forced to find an alternative away from our neighborhood, which brings the question of drunk driving.

When we lack the neighborhood bar, we begin to force those who seek them out to find them outside of the neighborhood.  And unless you live in New York or San Francisco (both cities have a great collection of bars, FYI), you will likely end up driving to that bar and, thus, be forced to drive back home after drinking.

Multiple bars

Finally, there is a need for, not only one neighborhood bar, but multiple bars.  The reason is due to market competition and meeting all consumer preferences.   When there is only one bar, that place has little incentive to be the best bar in the neighborhood or on the street.  If you want to go to a bar near home, you really only have this one choice (or you go somewhere else if you don’t like that choice).  I’m sure we can all think of a place we’ve lived that had only one mediocre bar that we reluctantly patroned.  Having multiple bars forces each bar to improve the quality of their experience by attracting new customers and their competitors customers – pure market economics.  The other part has to do with trying to meet the preferences of everyone: not all residents may want to spend time at a sports bar.  Some may want a pool table and darts.  Others may want a bar that serves food.  Others may want a nicer cocktail than the ones the pub is serving.  Providing options allows residents of every stripe to enjoy these third-spaces and meet up with neighbors with similar preferences.  And when there are multiple bars spread throughout the street or neighborhood you allow for the movement between bars, thus turning the experience of “going out” more inclusive to the rest of the storefronts who wish to remain open and take advantage.

Before we start to think that this is a “Creative Class” argument, I want to say it is not.  Richard Florida’s creative class argument is flawed because it focuses on a cultivating specific demographic group as the cause of effect, rather than on the characteristics of the urban environment to meet overall demographic needs and preferences (expect a post later in the series explaining why planners think Richard Florida is wrong).  Nevertheless, the argument for why planners need to publicly embrace bars is focused on providing space for social interaction while simultaneously creating vibrant and, arguably, safer streets.  It’s time we begin to see the bar, not simply as an amenity, but almost as an essential requirement to complete the cohesiveness of a neighborhood.

This is the 2nd post in the series: Planning Confidential: Everything you thought about planning is true.  Click the link for an index of other Planning Confidential posts.

Roobs is an urban planner in Los Angeles.  He received his Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Urban Design & Transportation.  He received his Bachelors from UC Berkeley in Legal Studies and Sociology.


One Response to “Planning Confidential: Time to Embrace the Neighborhood Bar”

  1. […] Planning Confidential: Time to Embrace the Neighborhood Bar […]

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