An Imported LULU Tests Cities' Sensitivity
Whoever said that art imitates life has not visited one of Southern California's neighborhood cybercafes, where, according to some planners and police, the reverse is true. It is in these mainly blue collar, immigrant enclaves where video games and youth culture have combined into a lively and sometimes violent activity, thereby creating the state's latest LULU (locally undesirable land use).
In predictable fashion, cities are responding with ordinances, and businesses are fighting back through the courtroom. And another chapter of land use regulation is being written.
Central to the controversy is the tension between property rights and public safety – a legal quandary for land use regulators since the Supreme Court affirmed the zoning police powers during the 1920s. But this being California and the year 2003, there are fascinating new variables surrounding cybercafes: Cultural preferences of immigrant youth; the effect of violent, interactive digital imagery on group behavior; and the social ramifications of militarizing a post-9/11 America that is learning to live with fear.
Cybercafes are establishments that primarily provide computers for access to the Internet. They are also known as PC cafes, Internet cafes, and cyber centers. They are hugely popular in Asia, so California is the natural American launching pad for the business trend. But, already, cybercafes have been stereotyped as hotbeds of gang violence. In December, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) responded to an incident at a cybercafe in which teens were using chairs and steel pipes as weapons. The LAPD reported that fight as one of more than 300 disturbances, including a homicide, to which the department responded at cybercafes during the past year.
Much of the blame for cybercafe-related violence is attributed to violent, interactive on-line games, such as Counter-Strike, which allows participants to pretend to be terrorists or special security forces. Participants battle in urban settings with guns, grenades and bombs, and hold hostages while plotting assassinations.
A host of cities — including a number of Orange County communities with sizeable Asian populations — have stepped in to regulate cybercafes. The epicenter of this particular land use battle is Garden Grove, an Orange County city of 180,000 abutting Anaheim that has about 22 cybercafes. The City's population is 31% Asian. In January 2002 the City Council approved an interim ordinance "prohibiting the establishment of new cybercafes and creating time, place, and manner restrictions for existing cybercafes." Business owners criticized the ordinance as unworkable, and the Orange County Superior Court agreed, saddling the City with an injunction in August 2002 [see CP&DR In Brief, September 2002].
Many city attorneys are closely watching Garden Grove's appeal. Staff at city hall in Los Angeles is also paying close attention. The proposed Los Angeles regulations are spearheaded by Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents the southwest San Fernando Valley. Even though his district has only one cybercafe for which only a parking complaint has been lodged, ex-cop Zine is the go-to guy for the LAPD, which is eager to get a law on the books.
"We are using a two-pronged approach, treating this as a police matter and a planning matter," said Tom Henry, Zine's chief planning deputy.
This spring, the city's Zoning Administrator ruled that cybercafes require conditional use permits (CUPs) under an old rule requiring CUPs for penny arcades. Henry said it is reasonable to look at cybercafes as the 21st Century version of penny arcades, which apparently generated nuisance problems for Los Angeles decades ago.
Problems go beyond violence and include the typical nuisances of parking violations, gambling and noise, according to Henry. Many of the cybercafes have gone "underground." He acknowledged the difficulties inherent in crafting a regulation, and he is well aware of the troubles Garden Grove encountered in making its regulations stick.
"One of the problems we face is: How do we differentiate between a cybercafe and Kinko's? They rent out computers on which you can play games too," Henry said.
Alas, Henry had hit it on the head. Zoning has always been a blunt instrument. That is why the neotraditionalists have attempted to throw the zoning ordinance books out the window. But a more interesting dilemma is how to control popular culture. When video games played between teams in Northridge and Hong Kong over cyberspace are so exciting that they incite violence, are cybercafe owners the proper target of regulation? How about video game producers? What about gun manufacturers? There is no shortage of constitutional issues here.
Ariel S. Pagtakhan, the owner of Cyber HQ in the Los Angeles district of Eagle Rock, west of Pasadena, thinks it is wrong to adopt a blanket ordinance and believes that fear of youth is driving the official response. His clients are young people from the local community. He contended that tournaments, which invite people in from throughout the region, are the problem. He would agree to hire a security guard for tournaments, but said an ordinance that required full-time security is unnecessary and would put him out of business.
"Some are dismayed by the violence of the games. But these are the same games kids played 50 years ago with plastic army men. The difference is better resolution," Pagtakhan said.
The League of California Cities sees cybercafes as a classic nuisance. The right of business owners is tempered by the harm they may promulgate on neighboring land uses, said Bill Higgins, senior staff attorney with the League. Regulations have to be crafted that balance both parties' interests.
The game may already be over, though. It's not a question of whether cybercafe ordinances are adopted, it's a matter of how they are framed. And the final outcome will say much about how scared California's elected officials, police and planners are of our increasingly youthful and immigrant society.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.