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Liquor store near SafePlace a nonstarter

Friday, August 22, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A plan to put a liquor store near Austin’s SafePlace shelter found no support at the Planning Commission last week.

Riverside Liquor was seeking a conditional use permit for liquor sales at 6100 East Riverside Drive in about 1,500 square feet of a 10,000 square foot commercial retail building built in 2010. They had support from city staff, but none from Planning Commissioners.

“When I read this case, my mind was blown,” said Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza. “I could not believe this got staff support.”

“Maybe it’s because I am a social worker, and I have seen that connection between this population and alcohol,” Zaragoza added. “The thought of it being walking distance by a city-approved process is mind-blowing. I understand that a bottle of alcohol is not going to turn you, or me, or a neighbor into a perpetrator of domestic violence, but that is such a known factor in that dynamic.”

Commissioners voted 8-0 to deny the Conditional Use Permit. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.

Scott McKinlay is the operations director of SafePlace, which was founded in 1998 as a merger of the rape crisis center and battered women’s shelter. McKinlay explained that one of its primary missions is to provide a safe space for victims of domestic and sexual violence as both a crisis shelter and longer-term supportive housing. He told commissioners there were often substance-abuse issues with the people they served.

In addition to the shelter at its main facility, SafePlace is partnered with Grove Place Apartments to provide longer-term affordable housing. Those apartments are less than 500 feet from the proposed liquor store.

“It’s an important issue in our community, and we think that the sale of alcohol near our facilities is potentially a problem for the victims that we serve,” said McKinlay.

“There is a high statistical correlation between alcohol abuse and domestic partner violence,” said McKinlay. He explained that although alcohol abuse cannot be proved to cause abuse, abuse tended to be more severe when coupled with alcohol. Additionally, a 2002 study found that more than a third of domestic-abuse victims also had problems with substance abuse.

Jim Bennett represented the applicant, Sufian Emmar, with Riverside SBB, Inc., and said the proposal was an appropriate one for the neighborhood, which had no other liquor stores in close proximity. He said he appreciated the work that SafePlace did.

“The EROC (East Riverside/Oltorf Combined) Plan was not a plan that was haphazardly made,” said Bennett. “I think its tenure was about seven or eight years in creation and microscopic review. The fact that the plan allows for this to occur without a FLUM (future land use map) amendment and without a zoning change is certainly, I think, something that was looked at.”

“We’re not here trying to undermine their efforts,” Bennett added. “I appreciate their efforts. However, a liquor store doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to create an abusive relationship with anyone. In fact, I believe that if you are going to be an abusive person, you probably have a psychological trait inherent already.

“You’re not going to be able to put these people in a plastic world and say that liquor stores don’t exist,” he said.

A letter from SafePlace Executive Director Julia Spann noted that, as a nongovernmental organization, SafePlace aided what would “otherwise be a cruelly underserved population” through mostly state and federal grants.

“Thus, we feel that the city should do what it can to support the effectiveness of SafePlace’s investment in housing for recovering victims of domestic violence by not granting the application to allow liquor sales,” wrote Spann.

Ex officio member Jeff Jack agreed.

“We don’t give them the funding that they need,” Jack said. “We should give them the support that they need to do their job.”

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