While is it not our custom to oppose business investment in Baltimore, particularly the prized kind that creates jobs without requiring public subsidies, it would be difficult not to sympathize with the residents of Federal Hill and the problems they've encountered with the high volume of drunks in the vicinity of Cross Street Market.
The proposal to create a 300-seat beer garden on that same block has pushed opponents to the breaking point. Enforcing drinking laws is one thing, but surely even the most pro-business advocate must admit there can be a critical mass of bar patrons beyond which Federal Hill and its environs can't function. Is it possible we have reached that limit?
According to neighbors, it's not only possible, but we're past that point already. To hear their stories of rowdy behavior, public urination and damage done to private property on a nightly basis is to appreciate that Federal Hill's commercial success has its costs.
Small wonder that all five neighborhood associations have joined together to oppose the "Crossbar" beer garden plan, which essentially involves taking a now-defunct bar and expanding it so that it can serve three times as many customers as it had in the past. They are not opposed to beer gardens, the developer or the hospitality industry generally, but residents firmly believe that the area has reached a saturation point and no amount of added enforcement is going to solve the problem.
They make a strong argument. Thirteen years ago, it was clear that Federal Hill was straining to accommodate the growing bar trade. That's why the state took the unusual step of approving limits on new bars near Cross Street Market.
But something unexpected happened in the intervening years. Existing bars were allowed to expand — to the point where the district has seen an average of 127 more bar stools each year for the past decade.
City Councilman Bill Cole is among those who believe enough is enough, and he points to the police practice of closing down Charles and Light streets in Federal Hill after 10 p.m. on the weekends as an indication of how far it's gotten out of control. What he and others would like is to give local residents a greater say in Federal Hill's future, including how many bars it should have and how big they should be allowed to grow.
Is Federal Hill a "party neighborhood" or is it also a place to live, work and raise a family? Surely, there's a balance to be struck.
What's frustrating about this decision is that Federal Hill also has its share of empty storefronts, so it goes against the grain to deny any business owner the right to invest in the community. But the bar trade is not just any business. From Fells Point to West Baltimore, there's long been a concern about the harm an excess of alcohol can do to a neighborhood.
Those who think the complaints from neighbors are just the usual NIMBY rants ought to take a moment to read former Sun reporter Diana K. Sugg's first person account of life in Federal Hill on baltimorebrew.com. The mother of two not only makes the case for protecting the neighborhood's quality of life but for why residents are skeptical that the liquor board is capable of adequately regulating licensees.
Certainly, the problem could be addressed as an enforcement issue. It's against the law to throw around flower pots and scream obscenities at 2 a.m. or for bars to serve patrons who are already drunk, but increasing the police presence and raising fines has been tried before. Perhaps it's time to draw a line.
History tells us that Baltimore has not done a particularly good job of regulating the alcohol trade. And while we would very much like to see businesses on Cross Street and elsewhere thrive, why can't a beer garden be located elsewhere in the city? That Cross Street already has the highest density of bars to population in the city speaks volumes. Local residents deserve to have a say in the future of their neighborhood, even if it means saying no to a development that might bring jobs and new investment.