Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Sheffield residents, who live in a historically working class community south of Independence Avenue in Northeast Kansas City, are fighting a liquor permit for a new bar in a residential part of their neighborhood.

The Sheffield Neighborhood Association (SNA) has “exhausted all other options to stop this liquor license from being approved,” and is now seeking the broader community’s help, Secretary Carly Benjamin said. They are hoping the City will deny the liquor license at 6401 E. 12th St. for the new Bar Inolvidable, and change the ordinance granting liquor licenses to be more equal and equitable.

The application was submitted to the City in early March 2022. On May 5, notification letters and voting forms were mailed out to all eligible neighbors and the voting period closed on June 4, according to Jim Ready, Manager of the City’s Regulated Industries Division.

“On June 11, after weighing all factors outlined in section 10-212(d) of the ordinance, I approved the application because the applicant met all of the requirements of the ordinance,” Ready wrote in an email to Sheffield Place CEO Kelly Welch.

According to Benjamin, Ready has said there is nothing the neighborhood can do to stop this liquor license from being approved, despite months of efforts, because of the current City ordinances about liquor licenses in residential streets.

“The City’s, specifically Regulated Industries, official position that they will approve the liquor license and there is nothing we can do to stop it has made it clear that they do not care about the residents of the Sheffield neighborhood, the Sheffield Place Women’s & Children’s Shelter, and the Whatsoever Community Center,” Benjamin wrote in an email to the Northeast News on December 12.

The association has worked for months to stop the permit’s approval, following what they thought was the right course of action, gathering signatures, reaching out to their Third District Councilmembers Melissa Robinson and Brandon Ellington, and attempting conflict resolution.

“The offices of Councilwoman Robinson and Councilman Ellington have tried to stop the liquor license on behalf of the neighborhood, but they have been unsuccessful,” Benjamin wrote. “We are seeking the public’s assistance in getting the attention and ear of City Manager Brian Platt or Mayor Quinton Lucas. As of now, the City Manager or the Mayor are the only individuals who can stop the liquor license since the current ordinances are poorly written to favor only business owners.”

Historically, petition efforts would have been enough to stop the liquor license, Benjamin said, but an ordinance a few years ago, which was opposed by Councilwoman Robinson, changed that.

“I was kind of hoping that the family that applied for the liquor license would change their mind because they missed a couple of deadlines,” SNA President and lifelong resident Mark Morales said. “I was hoping that we could do some mediation with the Center for Conflict Resolution, I was hoping to meet with the family, but they just didn’t connect with us.”

Morales recalls problems with liquor stores in the past, which caused challenges and public safety issues.

“We’ve had some problems with a liquor store at Winner Road and Hardesty back in the day, right next to the low- to moderate-income housing association at 12th and Hardesty, and that was always a challenge,” Morales said. “A lot of public safety issues, a lot of shootings and stabbings there, and now they want to put the tavern right next to Sheffield Place, a community-based partner.”

The neighborhood attempted to contact the owner of the property, who lives in the neighborhood, to bring in a mediator from the Center for Conflict Resolution, but never got a response. The Sheffield neighborhood has 1,200 land parcels.

“The majority of buildings in our neighborhood are residential,” Benjamin said. “While we do have a handful of residences that were converted from residential to commercial private party halls, the rest of our commercial business are located along the main roads in commercial areas such as Independence Avenue, Winner Road, and Truman Road.”

The association’s concern is with one of the private party halls trying to become a public bar, or tavern, with a full liquor license every day until 1:30 a.m.

“This part of our neighborhood is only residential houses and churches,” Benjamin wrote. “Considering the location, and the historical and ongoing problems that come with alcoholic establishments, the neighborhood association was immediately opposed to the liquor license.”

Benjamin said, upon learning of the request, the neighborhood association immediately began doing their research.

“We went to the City of KCMO website and found the ‘What if I don’t want a retail liquor establishment in my neighborhood?’” Benjamin said.

After reading through the recommendations, they determined their best course of action to oppose the liquor license would be to speak up as a neighborhood and create a petition, as outlined on the City’s website. They went door to door, gathering the signatures of all the residents within the 350 feet who were opposed to the liquor license at the bar. Over half the houses signed their petition. However, when they took them to Regulated Industries, they were met with the “official vote” of 6-2.

“Just within the 350 feet we got five signatures of houses who did not or could not return their official ballots,” Benjamin said. “These five signatures do not include the families that submitted official ‘no’ votes. So, using the rules that were outlined on the website, the vote for the liquor license should be at least seven ‘no’ and six ‘yes,’ again disregarding the neighborhood association as a vote, and Sheffield Place and Whatsoever Community Center’s opinions.”

In addition to the neighborhood association’s letter, Whatsoever Community Center and Sheffield Place submitted letters opposing the liquor license.

Then, Regulated Industries informed them that the information on the City’s website was out of date. Just two hours after Benjamin spoke to them, the website was updated and the new guidelines were posted.

“We can cite existing bars in the nearby area who are already experiencing the challenges we are concerned about,” Benjamin said. “We were told our concerns of what may happen is not enough to deny a liquor license, but considering the ongoing problems of the private party halls, including Bar Inolvidable when it was a private party hall, and the ongoing problems at public bars such as Las Plebes, Westport and Kansas City Power and Light, we as the residents know it is not a matter of if the problems will come, but when.”

Benjamin, who has spent extensive time researching the process and discussing with City staff and neighbors, said the liquor license approval process is not only unfair and inequitable, but a very poor representation of the neighborhood’s opinion as a whole.

“Because we live in such a dense area, only houses within 250 feet of the bar were included in the official vote,” Benjamin said. “This is a rigged vote for a few reasons: the owners of the bar own at least two properties within that 250 feet, according to the City’s Parcel Viewer. I was told by residents in the area that the owners have additional family living in the houses within 250 feet.”

The association takes issue with the new rules, both in theory and in practice. With their level of density, Benjamin recognizes that even more people will be affected by the business.

“Right now, the rule is 250 feet, or 15 houses,” Benjamin said. “If 15 houses aren’t within the 250 feet, then the circle is extended 50 feet, up to 1,500 feet total, until at least 15 houses are included – this is according to the director of Regulated Industries – but 250 feet is only 4 houses in each direction. It does not even include one block in each direction. This is outrageous to me, especially considering that the Sheffield Place women and children’s shelter is one block east, only 695 feet.”

When out canvassing, they were closely watched, allegedly by the bar’s owner, causing some neighbors to not want to sign the petition in fear of retaliation.

“Many were concerned about creating bad neighborhood tensions or neighbor feuds,” Benjamin said. “Physical intimidation was never used based on my understanding, but pressures of bad blood and drama were obvious – which I witnessed firsthand when the alleged owner watched us.”

A frustration shared by other Northeast neighborhoods, the association does not officially get a vote. At a recent SNA meeting, 10 more residents signed that they wanted the liquor license denied.

In a community constantly fighting for language access in government processes, Benjamin noted the ballots are only sent in English.

“Most residents in our neighborhood are working class to low-income households, many with children,” Benjamin wrote in a letter to Councilwoman Robinson. “Additionally, the majority of our population has Spanish as their first language, with many households only speaking and reading Spanish… With a mainly Spanish speaking population, many of our residents did not know what the form was even for as they couldn’t read and understand the vote.”

SNA translated the letter for many residents, but it was too late. To correct this, ballots should be mailed out in at least English and Spanish, but ideally be offered in other languages based on the residents of the area, Benjamin said.

“The Historic Northeast has many pockets of immigrants and refugees who read or speak little to no English but are registered voters,” she continued. “The culture of the Historic Northeast is what makes it so special – we have pockets of Vietnamese, Sudanese, middle eastern, etc. – and these families should not be kept out of the vote just because they don’t read English.”

Benjamin also noted the accessibility of having to return a ballot to City Hall or mail it in, especially with recent frustration over mail service. She requested an online or call-in voting option available in multiple languages.
She also hopes the process will weigh the vote of direct neighbors more heavily.

“The homeowners … have had issues with the private parties for years,” Benjamin wrote to Robinson. “Their issues include, but are not limited to, broken glass on the sidewalk and in their front yard, property damage and vandalism, loud music issues, and fighting including gun violence. This family… is a multi-generational home with a young toddler daughter and they are concerned for her safety being so close to a public bar. The neighbors… will be the family most affected by the bar, yet their vote weight is the same as the bar owners or any other neighbors.”

In an ideal world, Benjamin would hope the neighbor immediately next door could have a veto power, but she’s not sure how realistic that is. At minimum, she said it should be a qualitative factor that the director considers, along with the neighborhood association’s opinion and any other large opponents.

“These qualitative factors combined should be more than enough for the director to deny the liquor license, yet in the current system they mean nothing,” Benjamin said. “This process has shown me, and my neighborhood association, that the current rules show an obvious disregard for the neighborhood as a whole and the key institutions that are such important assets to our community.”

About four years ago, the Sheffield neighborhood began to recognize that homicides in the neighborhood were often men experiencing homelessness in the secluded areas of the community – along the railroad tracks, in the woods, and in vacant buildings. Since then, the neighborhood association has worked with Sheffield Place to renovate vacant houses and buildings, grown a community orchard at 10th and Newton, and worked with Our Lady of Peace on other community-driven projects.

“It just seems like we’re taking a step backwards with the proposed installation of a bar one block away from Sheffield Place, two blocks away from the catholic church and three blocks away from Whatsoever Community Center,” said Mark Morales, longtime Sheffield resident and association president.

Whatsoever Community Center has Early Childhood Education, and the neighborhood’s kids are engaged all throughout the day there in activities, including a well-known youth boxing club. Morales recognizes a tavern would pose a challenge for the center, and for youth walking there or waiting for the bus.

“This is a group of civically engaged residents who lived in the neighborhood a long time. We all signed the petition and it was invalid, it just did not work,” Morales said. “We the people in the neighborhood, we know the problems, you know, what alcohol can do in a residential area right next to homes, right next to Sheffield Place, whose main priorities are anything from substance abuse, domestic abuse, we just don’t need a tavern a block away.”

Sheffield Place is a strong partner for the neighborhood, and Morales doesn’t want them to be discouraged.

“We want them to continue investing, and as an advisory board member, I want to make sure I do my due diligence, and as the neighborhood president, to keep them invested in the neighborhood but they will continue investing but it could be like a black eye,” Morales said. “We don’t want them thinking that way.”

Welch told the City a bar simply does not fit with the residential nature of the Sheffield and Blue Valley neighborhoods and would bring increased traffic and noise on their street.

“The presence of a bar would bring drunkenness, littering, and vandalism along with the very real potential for violence in the bar and spilling out into the street and neighborhood,” Welch wrote in a letter to Regulated Industries. “Sheffield Place has invested heavily in the Sheffield neighborhood where the agency is privileged to operate, as well as in the Blue Valley neighborhood and has purchased and renovated a former convent to provide an additional seven units of transitional housing for families.”

Sheffield Place estimates that it will serve approximately 110 families with transitional housing in 2022 and 130 families in 2023. Nearly 90% of these women are recovering from addiction.

“A bar in the immediate neighborhood would be an unhealthy and unwelcome presence,” Welch wrote to Regulated Industries.

While the neighborhood association thought they were playing by the rules outlined on the City website, the owner was attempting to pass inspections. The business planned to get its license in October, but has gotten multiple extensions. At this point, the neighborhood expects them to receive it in January.

After a business gets a new liquor license, they go into a six month probationary period. If the business receives their permit, Sheffield neighbors plan to monitor the business closely and make note of issues in the hopes of getting the license revoked.

“We weren’t opposed to a business going in there, we actually weren’t even flat out opposed to alcohol being served there,” Benjamin said. “What we are opposed to is it being purely a bar, serving alcohol with loud music until 1 or 2 a.m. every single night. If they had been like a restaurant serving alcohol and then they close it at like 9, 10 o’clock, we would have been open to that. We aren’t trying to shut out a business. We just don’t want a party scene in the middle of the neighborhood.”

Sheffield Neighborhood Association meets on the fourth Monday of every month – except December – at 1001 Bennington Ave. They generally have 15 members or more in attendance, depending on the topic. The neighborhood maintains relationships with various nearby businesses, many of them located in the Blue Valley Industrial District.

At this point, the neighborhood association has heard that the permit will be granted. They are asking for a redo of the vote due to the rules being improperly displayed on the website.

“That gives us the ability to go and talk to our neighbors and get their official votes cast because right now we have their signatures, but we didn’t have their official vote,” Benjamin said. “Let us go translate to our neighbors and let us get the official ballots in.”

While the Sheffield Neighborhood Association continues their fight, the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association (SRNA), at the urging of nearby residents, is fighting a new liquor by the drink permit for an event venue at 3608 St. John Ave.

According to residents who live nearby, the venue operated through the summer without any of the necessary permits for operation, often running loud parties that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

The property owner recently made an application for a liquor permit through the City’s Regulated Industries Division. The investigator’s email address for residents to respond to in the consent portion of the permitting process however was listed incorrectly, causing residents’ emails to bounce. While technically the consent process should have started over, Regulated Industries supervisors were unwilling to re-start the process.

Despite the fact that the consent process response deadline had passed, Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood President Scott Hale contacted Regulated Industries to voice the neighborhood association’s concerns about the flawed process that didn’t allow neighborhood participation in the consent process.

In an email to Ready, Hale demanded the process be “scrapped,” and a new process began with proper notifications, as residents “were completely denied any voice at all in the matter. This is wrong and must be made correct. We must be given proper notification via the correct process.”

Last Monday, Ready sent an email back to SRNA, stating the consent process would be reopened and residents could respond to the applicants request, pro or con, until December 27.

“For the sake of our community, I’m grateful the re-opening process has been agreed to by Regulated Industries,” Hale said. “Our community, and every community deserves an accurate, fair and complete process.”

The two neighborhoods will continue to oppose the new liquor permits that they say don’t fit well in their residential areas, and urge the City to change the process to put more weight on neighborhoods’ responses.

Morales spoke with neighborhood leaders in Columbus Park, who experienced similar issues with new owners seeking to take over a liquor permit from a previous business.

“It’s kind of a challenge,” Morales said. “Other neighborhood associations facing that same problem, let’s team together. Let’s work with our local media, see what we can do.”