Liquor store reopening divides North Oakland neighborhood
on October 7, 2009
Ashrious Pannell opened NicNak Liquors in 1969 and ran it until a debilitating heart failure in 2004 forced him to temporarily shutter the store at the corner of Shattuck and Alcatraz. Now, his health is improved, and Pannell would like to reopen NicNak.
But things changed in his five years away, and 40 years after NicNak sold its first bottle of booze, Pannell is fighting to keep his store a liquor store.
Tonight, Pannell and his supporters bring that struggle to City Hall to ask for a “major conditional use permit and variances” that would exempt NicNak from a city law and allow him to return to business as usual. Many nearby residents want to make sure he doesn’t.
These two warring factions of the North Oakland community will present their sides tonight to the Planning Commission, which after a public hearing will decide the fate of NicNak.
Pannell’s problem is a city law passed in the 1970s that states no new liquor store may open within 1,000 feet of another. T & K Market, which sells alcohol, is directly across the street from NicNak. Both were there long before the law was passed and therefore were allowed to continue to operate.
But after NicNak was closed longer than 90 days, it could no longer claim an exemption, and was subject to the same permit process as a new store. Pannell reopened the business this spring and gave it a new name—JoJo’s Market. But the old NicNak sign still stood in the parking lot out front. And he started selling alcohol again.
That’s when his detractors emerged.
They emailed and called the city—filling the zoning manager’s email inbox with hundreds of messages and his voicemail box to capacity—saying no to NicNak’s reopening as a liquor store. Not only would reopening NicNak violate city law, they said, it would increase area crime. And legally, the city has no right to grant a variance, they said, and the precedent is dangerous.
Pannell’s supporters also contacted the city and spoke at an August Planning Commission meeting, calling him a pillar of the community. They asked the city to let a small businessman continue to operate as he had before his health problems. The store has never attracted crime or been a nuisance to the area, they said.
“I have never been called one time for any incident,” Pannell said in a phone interview cut short when his lawyer called and advised him not to speak to the press. “I have an impeccable record. I’ve had no problem.”
But Jeff Jensen, chair of the East Lorin Neighborhood Association, said NicNak’s neighbors complain of urine, vomit and feces in their front yards as well as empty bottles and other litter. Allowing NicNak to sell alcohol would only add to these problems, he said.
“For most residents it’s simply a quality of life issue,” Jensen said.
Jensen said that area liquor stores are strongly connected to crimes including loitering, public drunkenness, vandalism, youth drinking, and even murder.
“We’re just trying to turn around the over-saturation of liquor stores in the North Oakland/South Berkeley area,” Jensen said.
Jensen said a variance would set a legal precedent for all of Oakland, allowing other new liquor stores to argue for variances on the basis of that decision, and allowing their attendant problems to proliferate throughout the city.
But according to Pannell’s attorney, Clinton Killian, NicNak’s case is legally sound. The only requirement for a major conditional use permit and variance that Pannell does not meet is the 1,000-foot law, Killian said. Killian said T & K is a smaller store that sells mostly dry goods, with only a partial liquor license. So NicNak, with a full liquor license, would be offering something different.
Echoing Pannell’s statement, Killian said that in its long history, NicNak has never proved to be a nuisance—a record that should speak for itself.
“The reality of it is, in 35 years there’s never been any type of deleterious actions,” Killian said. “There’s no loitering, there’s no crime, there’s no public drunkenness. There’s no evidence that this store has any negative impact on the area.”
Pannell plans to expand NicNak with fresh fruit and store-prepared food, Killian added.
At its August meeting the Planning Commission considered a staff recommendation to deny the permit and variance. Following a public hearing, the commission voted 4-1 to ask city staff to draft findings to approve, which will be considered tonight.
Both Jensen and Killian, and city zoning manager Scott Miller, implied in interviews that a decision tonight might result in appeals to the City Council, and possible litigation.
The Oakland Planning Commission meets at 6 p.m. tonight at City Hall in Hearing Room 1.
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