Residents packed the council chamber on Monday night to hear a debate on Big T Mini Mart’s request to sell beer and wine. On one side, the Alhambra Police Department and the Alhambra Unified School District supported an appeal of the store’s permit to sell alcohol, citing Big T’s close proximity to Alhambra High School. On the opposing end, the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce and employees of Big T said they felt the store is a victim of uneven treatment, since other establishments in the nearby area are allowed to sell alcohol.
The council, after hearing presentations from both sides, as well testimonials from residents, decided to move forward with appealing the Planning Commission’s earlier decision to grant Big T a permit to sell alcohol. The Planning Commission had voted 6-to-2 on Oct 19 to grant Big T a conditional-use permit to sell beer and wine. This decision came in spite of city staff’s recommendation to deny the permit. The AUSD soon filed an appeal of the decision.
Superintendent Laura Tellez-Gagliano said during Monday’s meeting that the main issue is the store's proximity to Alhambra High. “Parents send us their children to be educated in the AUSD. It is our responsibility to make sure we keep the temptations and enticements as far away as possible,” said Tellez-Gagliano.
There is a small alleyway behind Big T that connects with the school. An iron fence separates the two properties, but, as noted by some speakers, students regularly scale the partition. “The fact is that students do jump the fence. I know people who do that,” said Tiffany Chiang, a senior at Alhambra High.
Police Chief Mark Yokoyama said that while alcohol related crimes have been on a general decline, the APD still gets calls about such incidents around Main Street. He added that growing homelessness and the rising number of mental-health calls—a “170 percent increase” since 2011— were factors in the department’s decision to support the appeal. Yokoyama said there is “a nexus between transients and addiction to drugs and alcohol or both. Not in all cases, but certainly in many cases.”
Yokoyama brought up a crux of the debate when he made a distinction between Big T and larger markets like the former Super A, saying that the homeless are more likely to shop for alcohol at smaller convenience stores. “They aren’t getting their alcohol from Target or Costco or grocery stores,” said Yokoyama, adding that it has been his experience that “convenience store-type locations” are more appealing to the homeless and the youth.
Trent Yamauchi, owner of Big T Mini Mart, noted that the upcoming Lohas Fresh Mart is only a block away from Big T’s location, and yet Lohas was granted a permit to sell alcohol within 19 days of filing for one. “I just want to be treated fairly as a businessman,” said Yamauchi.
“The city needs to be consistent in dealing with its citizens,” said Tim Buchanan, an Alhambra resident and frequent visitor to Big T.
Earlier in the meeting, Yokoyama had said that comparing Big T with Lohas was like "comparing apples and oranges," as Lohas was a larger store.
Yamauchi said that, according to his calculations, his store averages three dollars for every student who walks into the store. He said he would need the high profit margins of alcohol sales to keep pace with competitors.
Owen Guenthard of the Chamber of Commerce said that the number of high density developments on Main Street is bringing in new residents, and stores like Big T are needed to accommodate this younger population. He added that the “nearly 200” members of the Alhambra Downtown Business Association are also in support of Big T’s application for a permit.
“The area’s new residents have been grossly underserved by the city when it comes to convenience shopping,” said Guenthard.
Yamauchi said that he’d reached out to the school board and proposed to lock up the alcohol coolers during the early morning and the hours right when school has let out. He said that the board declined this proposal.
A similar scenario happened five years ago
when a former café on second street attempted and failed to obtain a license to sell alcohol. Because of this incident, some residents had alleged that nepotism was in play when Yamauchi was granted a permit by the Planning Commission; Yamauchi is the son of councilmember Gary Yamauchi, and commission members are appointed by the council. Trent Yamauchi said the allegations were “the farthest thing from the truth.”
“Out of all the councilmembers, he’s the only person that hasn’t stepped foot in my store,” Yamauchi said, referring to his father.
After the comment period was concluded, Mayor Luis Ayala asked City Manager Mary Swink if Yamauchi was ever promised a permit to sell alcohol when Big T was first proposed to the city.
Swink said that in the beginning it was understood that “there would be no alcohol or tobacco.”
“As we progressed in conversation with him, he wanted alcohol and tobacco,” said Swink. She said that staff had told Yamauchi “numerous times” that they would not recommend the Planning Commission to grant him a permit to sell alcohol.
Ayala made the distinction between Big T’s situation with Lohas’, saying that in Big T’s case “there was an investment with no guarantee that beer and wine would be available for sale.” Swink added that, in contrast, the city had an understanding with Lohas from the beginning that the store would be granted a beer and wine license.
Ayala, councilmember Barbara Messina, and councilmember Steven Placido all voiced their intention of appealing the Planning Commission’s decision to allow Big T to sell beer and wine.
Councilmember Stephen Sham declined to state his decision. Councilmember Gary Yamauchi was not in attendance.
City staff is expected to draw up a resolution that will grant the appeal that the AUSD requested. The resolution will be presented to the city council on December 14.