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Centro fiesta marks 15 years amid neighbor concerns

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Tom Hanks, John Travolta and Robin Williams have been to Midtown.

And they have another thing in common, besides being humongous stars. They’ve all eaten at Centro Cocina Mexicana.

Saturday night, "el restaurante" at the corner of 28th and J streets is throwing a party to celebrate 15 years of tequila and tacos. While some residents have expressed concerns about the party, which will spill into a back parking lot, Centro co-owner Randy Paragary said he would welcome neighbors.

"I want to thank them for their support over the last 15 years, and we hope that they come by and enjoy themselves," he said. "We hope this is truly a neighborhood celebration of a business that I hope they’ve enjoyed."

Homeowners who, as neighborhood association leaders represent residents’ interests, have raised questions about the celebration because of past conflicts over events and business operations on the block. They also say there is an ongoing communication problem that leaves them without answers until an event occurs.

Centro was opened in 1994 by Paragary and chef Kurt Spataro in the 72-year-old Born Brothers Building, which had been rehabbed a few months earlier. The pair already were partners in three nearby restaurants: Paragary’s Bar and Oven, Cafe Bernado and Capitol Grill, which was in the building that now houses Ink Eats & Drinks.

Centro joined Harlow’s in the 2700 block of J Street. The combination turned the block into one of Midtown’s hottest nightlife spots. At the time, the number of restaurants and bars was very limited in Sacramento.

Spataro brought an interest in ethnic cuisine and a knowledge of authentic Mexican food and regional cooking styles he gained on south-of-the-border trips with cookbook author Diana Kennedy, who wrote the acclaimed "The Art of Mexican Cooking."

Paragary said he’s been surprised at the number of restaurants that have opened in the past 15 years and the number of choices diners now have. Openings of newer J Street bars and restaurants at 16th and 20th streets have eclipsed Centro’s role as the "hot" corner, he said.

"There’s really been a tremendous growth in the restaurant industry," he said. "We’re very happy to still be in business 15 years later. It’s not a record, but it’s certainly not a flash in the pan."

Banners for Saturday’s "outdoor fiesta" hang from the fence around Centro’s sidewalk cafe. The event will take place from 5 to 11 p.m. or midnight, mostly inside the restaurant. A tequila-making demonstration will be held, and nationally recognized artist Esteban Villa will be featured in a Second Saturday art show. Recorded Mexican music will be playing in the restaurant’s parking lot and two portable bars will serve beer and margaritas. A plan for live music has been scrapped, Paragary said.

Nearby residents said they’re worried about the event after a stabbing was reported at the restaurant’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. The city closely supervised a "Midfest" celebration across the street in Marshall Park less than a month later. Neighbors also were unhappy when fireworks were shot off during a Kings celebration there.

"I’m really curious to see what we’re going to deal with this weekend," said Bill Burgua, co-chairman of the Marshall School/New Era Park Neighborhood Association.

He and other neighbors questioned whether a special events permit was applied for and approved 30 days in advance, to give residents and the city enough time to prepare for the event. Neighbors and city staff learned of the event two weeks in advance, after the banners were hung, Burgua said.

Residents who face parking shortages daily, and especially on weekend nights, also questioned whether the restaurant would find 14 parking spaces to make up for the loss of the parking lot.

Neighbors have sought assurances from the city that at least one city staff person would be on site throughout the event to monitor noise, safety and parking — as the city did for Midfest. In response to that request, a staff person in the city Code Enforcement Department advised neighbors to call the city’s 311 telephone number for service, Burgua said.

"The problem is, nobody’s said much," he said. "We haven’t gotten more than ‘We’re working on it.’ "

The code enforcement division, rather than the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, oversees the event and permitting for it, said Hindolo Brima, parks department spokesperson. That’s because the fiesta will be held on private property, he said.

The city would not comment further on Friday. Only one person in code enforcement was believed to be able to answer questions, and he did not return phone calls seeking information.

Centro has a two-year entertainment permit from code enforcement that covers special events such as this and gives permission to expand temporarily into the parking lot without having to find replacement parking, Paragary said.

The restaurant is hiring two uniformed city police officers to supervise the event, in addition to private security and staff members, he added.

The number of people attempting to work with the city on these ongoing issues is low because of the number of events and the city’s lack of response to taxpayers, Burgua said.

"People have just become resigned, and they think it’s just a waste of their time to complain," he said.

Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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