A group of Federal Hill residents say the bars have gone too far, and they have sought to shut four of them down this month alone.
"It's mayhem down here," said Beth Hawks, who has run the Federal Hill boutique Zelda Zen for the past nine years. "The bars have become mega bars. … It was never like this."
Both camps say they have the upscale neighborhood's best interests at heart. The neighbors long for more family-friendly businesses and upscale restaurants, while the tavern owners say their establishments have been key to Federal Hill's success.
"Living in the city is not a quiet thing," said bar operator Marc McFaul. "That's city life. … If you didn't have the bars and restaurants, you wouldn't have any shops."
The city's liquor board commonly hears complaints about violence and noise surrounding bars, but this time the neighborhood association has gone further, also citing more obscure infractions like improper building permits and unpaid taxes. The next hearings will be held Thursday.
Stephan Fogleman, liquor board chairman, says he can't remember the last time a neighborhood challenged this many bars in a year.
Fogleman said the neighborhood protesters are "effectively asking for the death penalty" for a bar. "More times than not, the commissioners aren't going to exercise the death penalty on a license without some clear and convincing evidence that a bar is causing great harm to the community," he said.
Unfazed by the protests, some bar owners want to continue to rev up the neighborhood's nightlife, which they say will make Federal Hill more prosperous.
Last month, the Cross Street bar Stalking Horse introduced a two-story addition called 30 East, with high ceilings and lipstick red trim, which ups its total size by about 25 percent. It's run by McFaul and his family, who also oversee the sprawling Ropewalk Tavern and, farther south on Charles Street, the Irish bar Delia Foley's. McFaul and his brother, who took over the Ropewalk Tavern in 1995, say the neighborhood has considerably improved since then — largely because of the new bars and restaurants.
While this might be the neighborhood's most vigorous protest to date, it's not the first. In the past, the neighborhood association has gone to court over a live entertainment license and has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation that would ban drinking games.
The catalyst for this latest round of protests was a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl last month at several Federal Hill bars, which brought in dozens of rowdy revelers, according to Paul Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. Robinson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, said he signed a petition seeking to pull the Stalking Horse's liquor license.
"How can I, as president of the neighborhood association, stand by and watch this happen?" he said.
While it's rare for city bars to lose their licenses — typically, a license is revoked only after multiple violent or drug-related incidents — that hasn't stopped some Federal Hill residents from trying, according to Fogleman.
The Federal Hill residents sought to have the restaurant and bar Ryleigh's Oyster shut down because of back taxes and fees, but withdrew the petition the day of the hearing. "I don't believe we've ever had a protest on that before," Fogleman said.
Federal Hill's offenses pale in comparison to neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon, where the now-closed Suite Ultralounge was linked to armed robberies, stabbings and a shooting, and downtown, where two men were killed — one of them a plainclothes police officer — in a parking lot outside Select Lounge. In Federal Hill, nuisance crimes, such as tipped-over flower pots and public urination, are far more common.
After a Ravens game in December, an argument outside the Stalking Horse led one man to throw a piece of metal railing at another man, striking him in the chest, McFaul said. The police classified it as a stabbing, and it became the first violent incident associated with Stalking Horse, he said.
"I don't know what else we could have done," he said.
The capacity of bars in Federal Hill continues to increase. The owners of MaGerk's are planning to merge two bars on the south side of Cross Street Market into one large restaurant/bar. And in late 2008, Dave Rather opened Mother's on the Alley, an expansion that nearly doubled the size of his restaurant/bar, Mother's Grille. Rather said it's a natural progression for the neighborhood.
"It's Charles Street, which is the main street of Baltimore," he said. "That's where business needs to happen. … The reason people live down here is because of the bars and restaurants. Without us, it wouldn't be as great a place to live."
Early on, McFaul was at odds with some neighborhood residents such as Bob Kight, who has lived in Federal Hill his whole life. Kight, a 76-year-old who spent 27 years on the liquor board, lives near Ropewalk and said he likes to sit out on his steps and people-watch.
Though Kight was originally opposed to Ropewalk's expansion and seven-day liquor license, when he saw McFaul's commitment to the bar and the rest of the neighborhood, he changed his mind. Federal Hill has come a long way in the past several years, in large part because of the bar owners' investments, Kight said.
"It's a better place now than it was 10-15 years ago, and I think the bars are a little better-managed," he said. "They realize the value of that liquor license and the value of getting along with the neighborhood as long as they possibly can. Of course, there's only so much you can do with the 5 percent of people who, when they drink, forget how to act. But for the most part, I think most of them do a decent job policing themselves."
In early 2008, 18 neighborhood businesses banded together to form the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, led by Brian McComas. Together, the businesses make more than $20 million in sales per year, which generates significant tax revenue for the city, McComas said. Assocation members pay more than $75,000 a year in overtime to hire city police to patrol the blocks surrounding the Cross Street Market on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, as well as during Ravens games, he said, and $25,000 pays to have the trash bins emptied and the streets cleaned twice a week. About $150,000 is donated by members to schools, charities and other organizations. It's part of the bars' efforts to give back to the neighborhood, McComas said.
"We have brought noise and some nuisance issues," McComas said. "There's no doubt about it. … Our primary goal is to help fix the problems in this community."
Bill Romani, vice president of Federal Hill Main Street and a neighborhood resident for more than 10 years, said Federal Hill's transformation reminds him of another city neighborhood across the harbor.
"It's been a very pronounced change," he said. "In the late '80s and early '90s, a lot of these growing pains were going on in Fells Point. Now there's a little bit of stability in Fells Point, and I think we're searching for that stability — that balance — here."