After years of lobbying for more late-night entertainment downtown, city officials are scrambling to slow a surge in new nightclubs until they develop new guidelines for the businesses.
City Hall officials and leaders in the Downtown Partnership plan to ask the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to freeze all pending nightclub proposals until a task force can study the issue.
A rush by investors to open more nightclubs is happening so quickly, they say, that it could damage long-term redevelopment plans. "The concern is there has not been a big-picture look at whether entertainment should be focused in a certain area and if the locations being proposed are compatible with nearby uses," said Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership.
Whelley said officials remain eager to bolster downtown nightlife, but said a short-term task force should identify what types of entertainment is appropriate and where it should be.
City Council President Sheila Dixon plans to talk with Mayor Martin O'Malley this weekend and then begin convening the task force of city officials, nightclub investors, police and citizens.
"I think we need to slow up our process of approving a number of these facilities particularly when they are clustered in one area," Dixon said. "We don't want to discourage nightlife, but we want to make sure we are not bombarded with five or six nightlife facilities that consume an area."
Laurie Schwartz, a deputy mayor in the O'Malley administration, said the task force should develop criteria that will "encourage this activity but mitigate and minimize any conflicts."
Ten new nightclubs and large bars were expected to open downtown this year. Lonnie Fisher, who had planned to open Ultrasonic in the 300 block of E. Saratoga St., has scrapped that idea in favor of a smaller club in Canton.
The other nine have opened or are under construction, which has drawn the concern of city officials. Those nine, which have been approved by the zoning board, will not be affected by the pos- sible development freeze.
Later hours weighed
Besides slowing development, officials would use the task force to examine the effect of more after-hours clubs and later bar closing times in Baltimore.
Liquor and zoning board officials, as well as investors, said they are dismayed by the concerns because council members are notified before zoning board hearings and have been involved in recent discussions.
The city Planning Department must also evaluate each proposal and then make recommendations to the zoning board. Dixon, a member of the Board of Estimates, voted to approve a 75-year-lease in December for the Cordish Co. Power Plant Live development at 34 Market Place. Two new nightclubs have opened there this year and a third large Market Place bar is expected to open by the end of the year.
"I am a little at [a] loss why anyone would be complaining" after the fact, said Benjamin A. Neil, chairman of the board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.
Jane Schroeder, deputy executive secretary of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners, agreed, saying: "It's not as if these places come out of nowhere."
State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said he intends to introduce a measure in the General Assembly that would permit some downtown bars to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. instead of the traditional 2 a.m. closing time.
Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings also plans to introduce legislation in the City Council that would permit more after-hours clubs downtown and in industrial areas, as was recommended by a nightlife task force convened four years ago.
Integrating nightlife into city
Mitchell and Rawlings also agree that a task force should begin planning how nightlife -- including a proposal for an African-American entertainment district along a 10-block area near Eutaw Street -- are integrated with plans for more than 2,000 new apartments and retail stores downtown.
Said Mitchell: "We need to know what the vision is for downtown. How does this work with that, and how do they connect?"
Whelley and Dixon said they are concerned that recent zoning and liquor board decisions allowing new nightclubs were made without careful analysis.
"I just think we just need to look at the fact that neither the zoning board nor the liquor board can or should be making their decisions in a vacuum," said Whelley. "Approval should be based on context and I don't think that has been happening."