Crossbar licensing a small victory for business in Federal Hill

The owners of Crossbar der Biergarten made major concession to bring their business to Federal Hill.

In a few weeks, Crossbar der Biergarten will open its industrial steel doors, welcoming in Federal Hill residents and other patrons to kick back at genuine Oktoberfest tables and sip German beers beneath the twinkle of lights strung under a glass ceiling.

Looking around the nearly complete beer garden, it's hard to see the compromise that has been poured into the place in the four years since it was first proposed. It has taken two liquor licenses, multiple hearings before city commissioners and courts, changes to construction plans, hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of negotiations with residents concerned about adding more bar stools to a neighborhood they feel already has more than its share.

Crossbar received the seal of approval it needed to open at 18 E. Cross St. when the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners unanimously supported its liquor license transfer Thursday.

It was a small victory for business following a major defeat earlier this week. Caves Valley Partners backed out of plans to redevelop Cross Street Market, leaving a number of Federal Hill residents worried about the message a vocal contingent is sending to those looking to invest in Federal Hill.

Garrett Schiche, vice president of the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association, sees different priorities among the varied demographics in Federal Hill: lifelong residents, those who moved to the neighborhood when it was first gentrifying two decades ago, and those who arrived in the past five years.

"Those people have different perspectives on what they want in the neighborhood and what they want out of the neighborhood," he said.

Their conflicting visions for the neighborhood came to a head when Caves Valley proposed a major overhaul of Cross Street Market that would have updated the run-down facility and added new merchants, while doing away with some longtime tenants like Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. The plans drew fiery criticism from some neighbors, as well as demands from current market merchants for compensation and lower rents. In a matter of months, the private-public partnership between the city and Caves Valley fell apart.

Councilman Eric Costello doesn't think other developers will touch the market because the profit margins are so slim.

"I'm absolutely devastated by the Cross Street Market news," he said. "This was our opportunity to get this right, and the deal is now terminated."

Arsh Mirmiran, a partner in Caves Valley, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

"People see so much potential for this area, for the peninsula," Schiche said. "And a lot of people just get really frustrated with the barriers that factions of the neighborhood put up toward progress, and being completely unreasonable with it, too."

The $6.5 million redevelopment of the market is not the first time a business owner has withdrawn.

The owners of Michael's Cafe in Timonium proposed bringing their concept to a vacant lot on the corner of Charles and Cross streets in 2013. The restaurant group backed out after residents protested the restaurant, citing parking and capacity concerns.

"The only lever you have to push on at the liquor board or anywhere else is to try to constrain capacity," said Michael Murphy, president of the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association.

Restricting capacity was one concession Crossbar's owners made. The project was met with hostility when it was first proposed in 2013. Beth Whitmer, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, said Brian McComas, a partner in Crossbar, approached her following the first round of negotiations and said he wanted to start with a clean slate.

Costello, who was previously president of the neighborhood association helped craft the memorandum of understanding that was ultimately signed. He said it's among the most restrictive in the city. It limits the bar's capacity, stipulates a 50-50 food and drink sales ratio and keeps the kitchen open until at least 10:30 p.m. daily. The neighborhood association voted 26-3 to support it on Sunday.

"Quite frankly we're pretty pleased with it," Whitmer said. "He conceded a lot. It's a very tight [memorandum of understanding]. He was willing to do that to make this work."

Crews are putting finishing touches on the space, previously four buildings that were consolidated under one roof.

That glass roof wasn't originally in the plans. An open-air area would have accounted for about half the building, but those plans were rejected by the city's zoning board. Construction, originally projected to cost $1.2 million, rang in at $1.5 million between adding the roof and delays, McComas said. A second liquor license and court costs added more than $500,000.

Like Michael's, the major concern surrounding Crossbar was its propensity to transform into a "megabar" — a club-like venue packing in hundreds of patrons during late-night hours. Although the building can safely house more than 300 people, the owners agreed to restrict Crossbar's capacity to 155.

"We did that as a show of good faith to show that we're good operators," McComas said.

Only one person voiced opposition at the most recent hearing; the board approved the liquor license unanimously.

"It's been a long road," Josh Foti, a partner in the project, said after the liquor license hearing. "We're very happy."

McComas said it was worth it.

"We love Federal Hill. We think that that is the premier neighborhood in Baltimore, and we were far enough in it that we weren't giving up," he said. "In light of what just happened in the Cross Street Market, we were far enough into it that we weren't going to turn back. We know it's going to be a good addition to the neighborhood. In the end, even most of the people that weren't in favor of it, we think they're going to come to embrace it."

As for Cross Street Market and future projects, residents say they're not sure where to go from here.

"We as a neighborhood need to learn to negotiate and understand what 'give and take' means a little more," Whitmer said.

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