At half past two on a recent Sunday morning, the Denny's restaurant in Emeryville resembled a crime scene. The popular 24-hour diner was packed with patrons, but the access road behind it was closed off with yellow police tape. Two patrol cars guarded the entrances to the Union 76 gas station next door, turning away drivers unable to find space in the restaurant's lot. A third cruiser, its lights flashing, blocked the entrance to a larger, adjacent lot.
A young woman swiveled her silver sports car into the gas station.
"Excuse me," she called out, flashing a smile to Sergeant Wade Harper, "can I park here?"
"No," he said.
"But I live right down the street," she said. "I just want to eat."
"I don't know where you can eat," replied Harper.
Her smile disappeared. "I didn't ask you where I can eat," she muttered, and drove off. Harper watched her go. "I call this Operation Ounce of Prevention," he said. "We don't want everything to go to crap out here."
One of Emeryville's oldest businesses, Denny's has become an emblem of the tiny city's growing pains. It is situated on Powell Street near the I-80/580 interchange, which, according to promotional literature for Emeryville's new Bay Street retail complex, hosts more than 260,000 vehicles daily. When a 1.2-square-mile town with a mammoth retail base invites the entire Bay Area over to shop, there are bound to be some problems.
City officials complain that Denny's and the adjacent gas station draw hordes of young people searching for the next hot spot after East Bay clubs close. On weekend nights, loud music can be heard blaring through open car doors. Women flirt and men holler. And some of the revelers use their car rooftops as less-than-ideal dance floors. "We finally called it Club 76 or Sweet Denny's," said Harper, making a reference to Oakland nightspot Sweet Jimmie's. "It's an outdoor club."
The city wants that club shut down. The impromptu gatherings, police say, are overwhelming their five-cop graveyard shift. Officers are consistently answering disturbance calls here late at night, leaving other areas unattended. And the opening of Bay Street's sixteen-screen, 3,300-seat cinema on December 18 is expected to further strain police resources.
The situation has gotten increasingly out of hand, police say. Last June, three men deliberately broke the gas station's windows. A month later, hundreds of revelers left a shootout near a Berkeley dance to continue carousing at Denny's. And in October, the son of Richmond top cop Joseph Samuels was arrested there for refusing to leave peacefully and allegedly hitting an officer.
At a November 19 city council meeting, Emeryville leaders mulled whether to declare Denny's and Union 76 public nuisances and force them to close between midnight and six on Saturdays and Sundays.
These are the prime business hours for Denny's especially -- its lighted sign is visible from the highway, a magnet for hungry masses with nowhere else to eat late at night. But the city is fed up. "This is not a minor problem," said Councilman Richard L. Kassis. "This is a major problem. Somebody is going to get killed out there."
Hal Shields, a night auditor for the nearby Four Points by Sheraton Hotel, says guests often complain about the loud noise and the traffic. "It tends to get pretty bad on Friday and Saturday nights," he says. "The people that come over there don't understand that it is a restaurant. You go over there, you get a bite to eat, and you go home. It's a business."
One Denny's server who has worked there for a year corroborates that it's common to see people parked at the gas station, dancing and "just hanging out." A few months ago, he recalls, someone smashed Denny's windows after police asked the diner to close. "They got mad because they couldn't get in," he says. A manager at Union 76 witnessed a similar incident at the station. There were about fifty cars packed into the station's lot that night, she estimates. "It's just one big party," she says.
At the council meeting, Gary Lafayette, an attorney for the restaurant, urged city leaders to delay any decision until this week. The city had Denny's attention, he said, and the chain's top management was ready to meet and discuss solutions. The councilmembers agreed, but warned that if the chain didn't quickly make good on its promise, they'd send the issue to the planning commission. (A meeting with Denny's brass was slated for early this week, says City Manager John Flores.) Councilwoman Nora Davis acknowledges that a majority of the patrons are simply there to eat, but tough luck. "We want people to have a good time, but the minority causes trouble for everybody else," she said. "We are a small city. We can't call on hundreds of police."
Denny's has been operating in Emeryville since 1969, and the gas station has been around for four and a half years. The problems, police say, started about two years ago. From June 2001 through January, the cops say they answered roughly forty calls to Denny's between midnight and six in the morning. From February through July, they had 65 calls during the same hours. They had to call in the CHP for help on at least two occasions.
Emeryville cops say they have routinely asked the restaurant and gas station to shut down until the crowds disband, and while the businesses sometimes comply, the choice is strictly voluntary. "There's no hammer to make them cooperate," says Ken James, Emeryville's chief of police. James says he and others met with Denny's management in February to ask them to close on weekend nights. Instead, the restaurant hired more security guards and posted "No Loitering" signs. "Those things didn't work," says James.
The problems escalated, police claim, after the Oakland cops began cracking down on sideshows in June. Following the July mob scene, when hundreds of kids flocked to Emeryville from Berkeley, Denny's agreed to shut down from 2 to 3:30 a.m. for six weeks. As of September, it was back to 24-7 service. "Since resuming our normal 24-hour operations, there have been no security issues at Denny's," said Debbie Atkins, public relations director for the South Carolina-based chain, in a statement.
The cops beg to differ. "The first night they opened," says James, "our crowd problems were back."
The breaking point came in October, when police arrested twenty-year-old Joseph Samuels III while attempting to disperse what they said was a crowd of 150. A scuffle ensued, and police say the Richmond police chief's son struck an officer. They also reported that Samuels was hit on the legs with batons. In the end, he was charged with three misdemeanors.
That episode prompted such measures as Operation Ounce of Prevention. "When I have five officers trying to manage 150 to 200 people, there's no way we can do it," says Chief James. "My officers would be outnumbered."
They may soon be even more outnumbered. With a grand total of 37 cops, Emeryville has the largest force per square mile in the Bay Area, according to City Manager John Flores. But it's hardly the typical small city. Emeryville only has 7,300 residents, but its population swells to 22,000 during the day. Over the past decade, the city has aggressively expanded its retail base, welcoming businesses and shopping centers large and small -- including the Bay Area's first IKEA, a Home Depot, a Circuit City, and a ten-screen movie theater.
The city continues to grow, commercially and residentially. Nearly 1,500 new housing units are in the works, says Flores. November 20 marked the partial opening of Bay Street, a megadevelopment with some 65 stores, nine restaurants, 284 apartments, 80 townhouses, a 250-room hotel, and a 16-screen movie theater slated to open in two weeks.
Police are concerned about the department's ability to keep up with the growth. "The citizens of Emeryville might not enjoy the two-minute response time they are used to getting," says Harper, who is also president of the Emeryville Police Officers Association. The department, he notes, is already about five officers short due to recent promotions, retirements, and deaths.
Chief James concurs that Bay Street could be a problem for the department. He recently asked city officials for more police officers -- and got one. Flores says he thinks the new development will actually reduce crime, not increase it. Vacant lots draw more criminal activity, he says, but "we'll continue to monitor" the situation.
Back at Denny's, meanwhile, Sergeant Harper had his hands full doing just that. At the start of the graveyard shift, he'd sent one of his officers to block off the rear access road. As the gas station lot began filling with cars that weren't pumping gas, Harper and two more patrol cops showed up. They planned on staying until 4 a.m. "We're concentrating most of our efforts here," he said.
From his post, Harper watched one of his officers cross Powell Street to shoo away a group gathered across the street. "If we let 'em, they'll start congregating out here and start flirting," he said, gesturing toward two men following a young woman into the gas station. One of the men made a comment and the woman laughed, tossing her long hair over one shoulder and tugging at her strapless denim top.
A long line of cars, deprived of parking, waited at a traffic light to turn onto Powell Street. A persistent few headed to the Kinko's lot further back, but Officer Brian Head warned them over his cruiser's PA system that their cars would be towed. "I'm so aggravated right now, let me tell ya," said the officer, scanning his rearview. "I'm ready to pull my hair out. I would rather be doing something else."
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