Down With Denny's

Lakewood strikes back against late-night drunks.

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There is no suburban political force more ferocious than a band of angry neighbors, united to demand that their local government protect them from the evils of development, noise, and traffic.

So Lakewood has discovered in recent months, as hundreds of angry neighbors from a few streets on the city's west side rose up to fight a threat to their peaceful, quiet way of life: a Denny's restaurant.

The neighbors stormed city meetings, bearing bright yellow signs with the name Denny's circled and slashed out in red and the words "Just Say NO! 24-hour Nuisance."

"Residents are concerned about increased traffic in the neighborhood, increased noise, crime to an extent, and disruption of the late-night evening hour -- and I think legitimately so," says Lakewood City Councilman Brian Corrigan, whose ward includes the corner of Detroit and Ethel avenues, the site of the proposed Denny's.

But many of the neighbors' complaints suggest that their real enemy isn't breakfast anytime, but drunken hordes descending on their neighborhood and wrecking their good night's sleep. Residents seem to have taken their anger at local bars out on Denny's.

Last week, the residents won. About a hundred of them, gathered in the City Hall auditorium, burst into applause when city council voted 5-2 to prohibit new businesses in almost all of Lakewood from staying open between midnight and 6 a.m.

Though the law lets businesses appeal for exceptions, it will likely cause franchiser Mike Kafantaris to abandon his plans for a Lakewood Denny's. "No 24 hours, no Denny's," he says. "It's like asking McDonald's to locate in your city without a drive-through."

The law passed despite little evidence that the 24-hour businesses now in Lakewood, which include several grocery stores and drugstores and one all-night diner, are bothering their neighbors. (Existing businesses will be able to keep their current hours.)

"We really don't have any considerable problems with any of the 24-hour operations," says Police Chief Dan Clark.

But Flora Mae Wetula says noise, traffic, and parking problems have plagued her neighborhood along Detroit ever since a nearby restaurant "turned into a sports bar." She bites off the term "sports bar" as if it were "strip club" or something equally odious.

"If I wanted to go to the Flats [every night], I'd move there," she says. "I have no place to park on my own street."

The state issues liquor licenses based on population, and densely packed Lakewood is home to more than 55,000 people, but only two east-west commercial streets, Detroit and Madison avenues. So both streets are packed with bars, many of them only a few feet away from people's homes.

The bars' role in inciting the fight against Denny's concerns Councilwoman Pam Smith, who voted against the 24-hour ban.

"The testimony that came before council seemed to be repeatedly related to people's concerns that we would have unruly, under-the-influence people staying more hours in Lakewood," she says. "To penalize Denny's because of that issue seems to me to be going after the wrong problem."

But the prospect of drunks hanging around at 3 a.m. scared council president Robert Seelie, who voted for the ban.

"As was said many, many times, I think [Denny's] would tend to be a magnet for individuals heading west from downtown on the weekends," he said at the meeting.

At Panini's at the Riviera, on Detroit near Ethel, Chris Gollinger is having a drink at 11:30 p.m. after playing on the bar's softball team. He lives nearby and thinks a Denny's would overwhelm the neighborhood. "It's a high-traffic area," he says. "A 24-hour restaurant [would bring] more people in and cause parking problems. I feel our property values would go down."

But Katie Juskiewicz, who lives in Brook Park but drinks in Lakewood, thinks a Denny's would have been a good idea. As it is, people who are hungry after last call at Lakewood's many bars have to drive across town to diners along the Cleveland-Lakewood line.

"People are drunk off their asses and don't want to drive all the way down there," she says.

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