WHAT HAPPENS when you spend months asking 43 downtown markets to pretty-please stop selling malt liquor and paint-thinner wines—and only nine actually say they want in?
The answer, says Commissioner Amanda Fritz, is this: You make everyone do it anyway.
"Some felt it worked out well," she said. "But it works better if everyone is on board."
Under a new plan, the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement would lump Old Town, downtown, and Goose Hollow into a state-controlled "alcohol impact area." There are two goals: To choke off the chief supply of hooch for "street drinkers," and to help Portland's sidewalks look more like the rosy pictures painted in the New York Times.
In the affected neighborhoods, merchants couldn't sell malted beverages with more than 5.75 percent alcohol or wines containing more than 14 percent. Microbrewers would be spared, and so would the two state-run stores that sell the hard stuff.
And when you're saying goodbye to 24- and 40-ounce containers, blow those tallboys a kiss, too. Sales of 16-ounce beer cans, alone or in six-packs, would also be forbidden.
Fritz's plan replaces a voluntary effort called Vibrant PDX. It has support from, among others, the Portland Police Bureau, a few merchants, and the folks who run the Julia West House, a place where homeless Portlanders can take refuge.
The hoped-for booze-free zone, they note, is one percent of Portland's area, but accounts for nearly 60 percent of public intoxication calls. They point to similar zones in Washington state and salivate over the results: fewer piss puddles, fewer panhandlers, and fewer sirens whizzing past.
But critics are ripping the plan as unfair and ineffective at best, and outright discriminatory at worst.
"This is basically punishing poor people," said Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, noting cuts in government cash for addiction recovery programs. "I don't think it gets to the root cause of anything, any time you target the user instead of the actual realities on the street."
Political insiders also invoke Portland's dalliance with drug- and prostitution-free zones, efforts rejected in recent years amid privacy and racial-profiling concerns.
So what would a better ban look like? Ask industry lobbyists, and they might suggest something voluntary. They also might favor a ban on specific brands of problem products—instead of merely restricting alcohol percentages and giving small brewers a loophole subject to legal challenges.
Many critics say any ban should be citywide. Otherwise, anyone absolutely thirsty for, say, Steel Reserve could just hop on the MAX to buy some. And come right back. And still offend tourists on Burnside.
This time, even some of the shopkeepers behind the voluntary ban are grousing. Under Vibrant PDX, for example, 16-ounce beer cans were okay to sell. They keep registers ringing, making up more than 30 percent of all sales in the area.
"You're just penalizing innocent store owners," said Paula Byun, who spoke for her parents on Thursday at a public meeting where businesses could ask to be excluded from the ban. Her parents own McCormick Pier Grocery, inside a condo development on Naito Parkway. "That's what our neighbors buy, our residents buy."
The city this week is expected to say which businesses will be excluded. Theresa Marchetti, Portland's liquor license expert, hinted her office would take a dim view of laments over lost sales. In Washington, as well as at problem businesses here slapped with similar restrictions, businesses welcomed the quiet and saw sales of other products increase.
If the council accepts the plan next month, it heads to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. There, commissioners would spend months making tweaks in concert with lobbyists, cops, bureaucrats, and neighbors before issuing a final decision.
Fritz acknowledged Monday that some provisions, like the ban on 16-ounce cans, may yet be changed. She also said she'd explore other measures, including expanding the zone, if a ban merely pushes the problem elsewhere.
But she dismissed complaints of discrimination, saying that unlike the drug and prostitution zones, no people would be banned—only liquor sales. She also trumpeted ongoing treatment-based efforts to combat public intoxication, noting that it's "not one or the other."
"These are all matters we're considering," she stressed. "It's not a done deal."