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'Bottle club' at center of violence at Belvedere

The Baltimore Sun

The Belvedere in historic Mount Vernon boasts a 40-foot-long mahogany bar where the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, the Duke of Windsor and Clark Gable sidled up for a drink.

The Suite Ultralounge Nightclub is in the basement of the Belvedere and boasts being "the only upscale venue in Baltimore where you can bring your own bottle of top shelf." Its Web site promo wants you to "swagger like us" and "come get your party on."

One does not seem to go with the other.

Early Saturday, loud music gave way to gunfire on East Chase Street in front of the Belvedere, leaving two people wounded by bullets, a third person stabbed and a bartender using a towel to try and stop the flow of blood. City authorities said an argument led to a fight that led to the shootings, and that it involved patrons of Ultralounge.

The establishment, which recently made a comeback from a police raid and criminal charges filed against the owner two years ago, has long been able to skirt scrutiny by city officials because of an odd zoning designation and its status as a "bottle club," which until just four months ago allowed it to operate outside the reach of the liquor board.

A bottle club, explained liquor board Chairman Stephan Fogleman, "is a strange legal creature," essentially a BYOB bar. The only requirement was that the owner had to send a letter to the liquor board to register. "We had no oversight, nothing," Fogleman said.

But that has since changed. On June 1, a new state law took effect putting bottle clubs - the one at the Belvedere is the only one in the city - under the same liquor rules that govern bars. That means the owner can be held accountable for the actions of his patrons.

"This is just tragic, and I can't believe our worst-case scenario is coming together so fast," Fogleman said of the violence. "I don't know if this incident will lead to calls for the club's closing, but obviously if the people at the Belvedere sign a petition, we would accommodate a hearing."

Sammy Hyun Paik bought the Ultralounge's 6,000-foot space in the same way a resident buys a house. And the condo association cannot enforce rules that contradict existing city laws or prohibit uses allowed under zoning regulations.

The city managed to shut Paik's bottle club two years ago after city police raided the business and hauled out bottles of beer, brandy and wine and took Paik and his associate away in handcuffs. Paik was charged with liquor infractions, such as failing to register the bottle club and selling alcohol without a license. His associate, Louis L. Wood, was charged with liquor violations and a gun violation.

Prosecutors put the criminal charges on the inactive docket, and civil and criminal charges related to zoning violations have all but gone away. Explanations for this varied yesterday, but with city and state offices closed for Columbus Day, it was not possible to obtain court records and other documents. But the closure of the case and reopening of the club has angered Ken Pippin, the former head of the Belvedere's condo board.

"The guy caters to thugs; that's his basic clientele," he said of Paik. "If everyone had done what they were supposed to do, this place would be closed up as any kind of nightclub. It's frustrating because now it almost seems like we're starting all over again. And now it's worse. We've had people beaten up. We had a stabbing. We had people get mad at getting thrown out and come back and shoot a hole through the door."

Wood, the manager of Ultralounge, said there was a verbal altercation before the club closed early Saturday and that the "aggressor was removed from the premises." A short time later, there was a shooting outside. "What happened, to me, was an isolated incident on public property that no one can foresee or stop," Wood said.

The manager called descriptions of Ultralounge as a hip-hop club false, and he said the club fits in at the condominium complex. "From my understanding, the point in 2006 was not whether we belonged at the Belvedere, but over permits," Wood said, adding that the club is now in compliance. "Our establishment does not promote or advertise for one demographic versus another. We have held Sweet 16 parties. We have held 40th-birthday parties. ... We are not a hip-hop club or an urban club."

Wood said the club even holds monthly Christian events.

The Ultralounge is not the Owl Bar. Variety is good, but violence isn't, and owners of bars and bottle clubs alike have to keep their establishments safe and civil for their patrons and their neighbors. The club attracted the people involved in the shooting; it can't take all the blame, and it can't shirk all the responsibility.

Breaking the law is part of the Belvedere's lore, its mystique - that long mahogany bar once served as a speak-easy during Prohibition. The Ultralounge is in the basement where casks of illegal whiskey were once stored, but that doesn't mean its owner doesn't need to keep an eye out for more modern transgressions.

"It's a very well-known building," Wood said of the Belvedere. "It's a very nice building. We're happy to be where we are."

His neighbors also need to be happy, and safe. And now it appears the Liquor Board will get finally get to weigh in as well.

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