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."
"It's definitely a party neighborhood," Martini said, comparing it to her days as a student at the University of Maryland. "It's an extension of the same scene. Only instead of going to school, you go to work."
Public officials and the Mathieus said they see the dynamics of Federal Hill changing as more families choose to stay and enroll their children in public schools. Four of the families on the Mathieus' block of East Wheeling Street also have young children, which wasn't the case when they moved in.
While the demographics might be in flux, McComas said the economic realities remain the same. Customers flock to bars and restaurants in Federal Hill. And he said the proposed beer garden would be family friendly during the day. What's better for kids than picnic tables?
Dozens of bar and restaurant patrons have signed a petition in support of the proposed beer garden.
Among them is Mandy Dennis, 31, who on Saturday finished a day shift at Ryleigh's and had a cigarette in the alley by the No Way Jose Cafe. She lives above a bar on Light Street, loves the idea of a new beer garden and suggests that the naysayers are the problem.
"They should probably move to Ellicott City," Dennis said. "I listen to the crowd come out at 2 a.m. and I'll giggle."
A few steps away, Greg Diamond, 31, sipped from a Corona bottle and ticked off how the neighborhood has evolved for the better over the eight years he's lived in Federal Hill. Now there's a Phillies bar, a Jets bar, a Bills bar, an Eagles bar, a Steelers bar and, of course, a Ravens bar. There's a niche for everyone.
"Any random corner, any random bar, everyone is having a good time," Diamond said, pointing to a family waiting outside a nearby restaurant. "Look, people have their kids, and we're here hanging out."
McComas said residents who might have outgrown the neighborhood aren't necessarily entitled to change it.
"No one should be urinating in your yard. We get that. But you're moving to the neighborhood," he said. "You were 28 and liked to rip it up, but now you're 37 and you've got two kids. Does the neighborhood need to change because you did?"
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