By Jaguar Bennett | firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you ever seen a thriving restaurant district built around a church? The ongoing illegal occupation of the Tower Theatre by Adventure Church will soon test whether a church-centered neighborhood can sustain a vibrant restaurant scene. In effect, the Tower District will be subjected to an unasked-for economic experiment. So what happens to a restaurant district when its most significant commercial space is replaced by a church?
Let me venture a hypothesis. No matter what spiritual benefits anyone might think Adventure Church will provide the Tower District, a church can’t replace the economic stimulus of a working commercial theater. Planting a church in the heart of a commercial district of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will inevitably change the economy and character of the neighborhood.
The direct threat that Adventure Church poses to Tower District residents is the possibility of a rezoning that can affect liquor licenses. For many restaurants, liquor licenses are a necessity for doing business. Who doesn’t like a tasty cocktail, beer, or glass of wine with a meal, especially in a hard-drinking town like Fresno? But liquor licenses are heavily regulated, owing to a leftover Prohibition-era mentality that views open alcohol consumption as a threat to public morals.
Zoning laws consider churches, along with parks and schools, as “sensitive-use” areas and prohibits placing businesses with liquor licenses within 1,000 feet of a sensitive-use zone. In addition to these restrictions in zoning law, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has the power to decline requests for liquor licenses within 600 feet of a church.
Placing a church at the Tower Theatre would create a sensitive zone that would include many favorite Tower District restaurants. Those including Livingstone’s, Veni Vidi Vici, Me-N-Eds, Irene’s, Sequoia Brewing Co, and Bobby Salazar’s, all of which sell alcohol.
If Adventure Church successfully plants itself in the Tower Theatre, none of these businesses will lose their liquor licenses immediately. But the proximity of a church would be an issue if existing businesses want to transfer, extend or renew their liquor licenses. Even more worrisome for the future, the closeness of a church may prevent new restaurants from ever getting a liquor license, creating a permanent limit on new businesses in the Tower District.
The restaurant business is volatile, especially in the Tower District. Restaurants close all the time, but new businesses frequently reopen old locations. In recent years, Bocca Taqueria became Aromas, and Charlotte’s Bakery became Casa de Tamales, which then became Banzai. If no new liquor licenses are granted in the Tower District, restaurants that close may never be replaced. We may not see the effects right now, or even in the next year. But looking ahead five or ten years, we may see more and more permanently closed restaurant buildings, weakening the neighborhood economy, reducing city revenue, and creating zones of urban blight.
Whether this nightmare scenario will happen depends on the future zoning of the Tower Theatre, which Adventure Church and theater owner Laurence Abbate seem happy to leave in permanent limbo. In January, City of Fresno officials advised Abbate and Adventure Church that religious assembly is not permitted in the Tower Theatre’s current zoning. The City further informed Abbate and the church that holding religious services at the Tower Theatre would require a formal rezoning process and a conditional-use permit.
However, Adventure Church has never applied for a rezoning and insists that no rezoning is required, despite the plain language of the zoning code. No doubt Adventure Church is aware that a rezoning would require public meetings where local residents and business owners can voice their objections to drastic changes that will permanently alter the neighborhood’s economy.
The zoning of the Tower Theatre can’t remain in limbo forever. Still, even without a formal zoning change, the presence of Adventure Church in the building will be an ongoing threat to local restaurants. Adventure has repeatedly claimed they have no intention of challenging liquor licenses, but any member of the public can challenge a liquor license. Thus, a handful of ‘Karens’ could cite the theatre’s use for Sunday services as a pretext for challenging new liquor licenses, even if the property is never rezoned.
Even if all the legal issues can be waved away, there is still the question of what positive value Adventure Church will add to the local economy. As a working commercial theater, the Tower Theatre attracts a wide variety of people to the Tower District who patronizes local bars and restaurants. Churchgoers come once a week and leave without stopping at local businesses.
Adventure Church claims they will continue to operate the Tower as a theatre, but it’s unclear how that’s possible. Local arts organizations such as Reel Pride, Fresno Filmworks, and the Rogue Festival are declining to work with a homophobic church. Additionally, touring acts seem to be steering clear of the Tower Theatre controversy. So instead of saving the Tower Theatre, Adventure Church may put the theater into permanent decline—and with it, the local restaurant scene.
To learn more about the issue surrounding the sale of the Tower Theatre, visit https://linktr.ee/TowerToThePeople.