The question in Federal Hill these days: How many bars is one too many?
The booming district around Cross Street Market has added an average of 127 bar stools each year for the past decade despite a state law aimed at limiting new liquor establishments. A proposed 300-seat beer garden has pushed some residents from frustration to outrage over the thought of more drunken revelers slopping into their streets.
"We've reached a critical mass of drinkers," said Eric Costello, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "There's not a public need for more drinkers in our neighborhood. There just isn't."
All five neighborhood associations around Cross Street Market have joined in protest over the proposed beer garden, in which the people who own the liquor license for a defunct bar have applied to triple the number of patrons they can serve. In advance of Thursday's hearing on the application, all four state lawmakers representing the neighborhood asked the Baltimore City Liquor License Board, which is a state agency, to give Federal Hill residents veto power over any expansions to any licenses.
Residents have mobilized in ways that elected officials said they've never seen before.
"We're not looking to shut down businesses," said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Democrat who represents Federal Hill. "There has to be a balance between those businesses and the people who make Federal Hill and South Baltimore home."
The team behind the proposed Crossbar de Biergarten operates Ryleigh's Oyster, a large restaurant and bar a few doors away. They see the controversy not as an objection to craft German beers and sausages served at picnic tables in an open-air courtyard, but as a disagreement about the neighborhood's future.
"It's not about our concept or what we want to do," said Brian McComas, a partner in the Federal Hill Partners restaurant group and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association. "It's about what Federal Hill wants to become."
McComas said the beer garden would replace a closed bar called Turner's and fill three vacant storefronts across from the city-owned Cross Street Market.
Developing vacant and underused property, he argues, is part of what will drive Baltimore's growth, essential to help reach Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal to attract new residents.
"If 10,000 more people are coming here, where are they allowed to go eat and drink?" he asked.
State lawmakers unanimously passed a law to limit new bars near Cross Street Market in 2000. But since 2003, the city's liquor board has approved expansions to allow existing licensees to serve 34 percent more patrons, according to liquor board data compiled by community groups.
Stephan Fogleman, the city liquor board chairman, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The concentration of large establishments in the area — eight seat 200 people or more — has prompted police to shut down Federal Hill's major thoroughfares of Charles and Light streets on weekend nights when the bars let out. Residents complain of returning with groceries on a Saturday afternoon unable to find a parking spot because a pub crawl has overrun the streets. Public officials have asked the liquor board to consider whether the neighborhood has become saturated with bars and to not allow any more expansions without the written blessing of community associations.
"It sure feels to me that we're getting to the point that we can't control it anymore," said City Councilman Bill Cole, who represents Federal Hill and lives there. When "you have to close down major streets, that's an indication that we've gone too far."
As residents Jon and Kelly Mathieu pushed their 4-year-old daughter's stroller away from the booming bar district on a recent afternoon, they spoke of a neighborhood struggling to deal with unruly bar patrons. A place where a neighbor's wall regularly becomes a late-night urinal; where there are no more flower pots because residents have grown weary of replacing the smashed ones; and no more benches because it's tiresome to wake at 2 a.m. and shout at drunken people to move on.
Often on Friday nights after work, the Mathieus can't find a parking spot for blocks. They didn't bother to complain about the trash and pizza boxes left over on weekend mornings. In response to neighborhood concerns, the Federal Hill Hospitality Association has hired cleaning crews.
"When we first got here nine years ago, we didn't mind the bars," said Kelly Mathieu, 41. "It's gotten unmanageable. It's the fighting, the drinking. It's the public urination."
"I call these slaughterhouse bars," said Jon Mathieu, 41. "They're bringing them in, getting them as drunk as they can, as quick as they can. ... You might as well open a frat house."
As Laura Martini, 27, and Ryan Jabs, 23, walked down Light Street after an early dinner Saturday night, Jabs deemed Federal Hill "better than when I lived in college."