‘Inferno’ of Controversy Heats Up in Remington

A Chronicle Staff Report
       WHAT HAPPENS when residential zoning butts right up to B-3 heavy commercial zoning?
        You get the kind of controversy that’s brewing in the 2800 block of North Howard Street and Cresmont Avenue, bounded to the north and south, respectively, by 29th and 28th Streets.
        In the center of this block is a large plot of B-3 zoned land that for many decades has been occupied by rows of small brick garages that have seen better days. Now the plot has been sold for $200,000 to Un Kim, owner of the Papermoon Diner, which abuts the northwestern corner of the property.
        Ms. Kim proposes to raze the garages and build the “Inferno,” the name she is giving to what she calls a 150-seat restaurant/ club/lounge with live entertainment that would be open seven days a week until 2 a.m. The project, with a budget that has climbed to an estimated $1.5 million, is an acceptable use under current Baltimore City zoning law.
        While properties on the south and west of the site are occupied by businesses, the other two sides are residential. These neighbors to the north and east, along with a contingent of residents to the west of the project, envision a potential nuisance, citing concerns about noise, loss of privacy, increased crime, disorderly behavior, inadequate parking, and an increase in underage drinking. They also voice concern that their property values will be lowered.
        As evidence of the nature of the project, they point to an article in Volume 8 of The Informer, the Papermoon’s newsletter, headlined “Straight to Hell!” that announces “HELL is coming to Remington next year....It’s a club, a lounge, a happening place that’s going to be right here next to the Papermoon.”
        Issue 9 of The Informer tells more about Inferno: “It’s only a matter of time before this fireball of organic energy pushes through the dirt and shows itself--a living breathing volcano, a Pandora’s box, a fountain of delightfully decadent heat.”
        “Who wants to buy a house that sits so close to a discotheque?” asked Jorge Gonzalez, whose home in the 2800 block of North Howard Street backs up to the Inferno site.
        Carole Schreck, who owns three investment properties in the 200 block of West 29th Street, expects to lose income if the Inferno is built. “My tenants are professionals, researchers, and graduate students who need to be able to sleep at night,” she said. “If they can’t, they’ll move elsewhere.”
        “Put a nightclub next door to a 24-hour diner, and what do you get? The whole neighborhood will become an all-night party spot,” said Joan Floyd, of the 2800 block of North Howard Street.
        Ms. Floyd and Ms. Schreck are publishing a newsletter of their own, called Stop the Inferno. In it, they educate their readers about the fine points of the liquor law. For example, the June 14 issue explains, “Under Maryland law, an establishment with a kitchen that makes as much as 60% of its income from alcohol, is open until 2 a.m. seven days a week, has a dance floor, bandstand, and offers everything under the ‘live entertainment’ umbrella is still technically a restaurant.”
        Asked to describe her project, Ms. Kim replied, “The Inferno targets customers 30 years of age and older. The B-3 zoning permits me to do whatever I wish, including live entertainment. The Inferno is a bar, lounge and restaurant, not a nightclub.”
        Asked how Inferno management would deal with neighbors’ safety concerns, Ms. Kim replied, “There will be three [private duty] policemen posted on the premises, like in the Papermoon Diner--one in the parking lot, one at the front door, and one inside.”

“The 51% Rule”

        Since the Inferno is a permitted use under zoning law, opponents are lodging protests with the Liquor Board. Ms. Floyd said, “Maryland law gives our neighborhood the right to vote on whether or not this business gets a liquor license.”
        Jane Schroeder, deputy executive secretary of the Baltimore City Liquor Board, confirmed that a community can stop the issuance of a liquor license if they can show more than 50% of the establishment’s neighboring property owners and leaseholders within 200 feet say they don’t want it. Usually the 200 feet is measured from the corners of an establishment, but since there is no building on the property, Ms. Schroeder said she was unsure from what point the measurement would be taken.
        Ms. Schroeder said “community groups” can negotiate compromises with liquor license applicants that can be stipulated in the terms of the license. “We’ve had as many as five groups as signees,” she said. “They [the community groups and the license applicant] really should be talking to each other,” she said. “We [the Liquor Board] can’t do it on our own.”
        “We have asked for some written indication that the applicant is interested in this process,” said Ms. Floyd. “So far, we’ve had none.”

Support for the Inferno

        Not everyone objects to the Inferno project. Hazel Helmick, president of the Remington Community Association, has said her organization’s board endorsed it. “We have no reason to believe Ms. Kim would do anything detrimental in the community,” she said.
        She said her group had only seen the exterior plans for the project. “We were told there was not a dance floor, and that there was no stage, and that entertainment would be limited to a trio of musicians,” she said.
        She said opponents to the project did not follow through in bringing their concerns to her group, pointing out that the 2800 block of North Howard Street falls within the boundaries of both her group and the Charles Village Civic Association. “They pay benefits district taxes [to the Charles Village Community Benefits District], and they align themselves with Charles Village,” she said.
        Ms. Floyd said she and her neighbors, including many affected residents and homeowners west of Howard Street, were unaware of the Inferno plan until after its endorsement by the Remington Community Association’s board. “Clearly this neighborhood must act on its own in order to represent our interests,” she said.
        Ms. Floyd observed that Ms. Helmick’s home is several blocks away from the Inferno site. “If this were going on behind her house, I have to believe she’d be opposing it,” charged Ms. Floyd, “and I’d be supporting her.”
        Ms. Helmick agreed that if the Inferno were to be built directly behind her house, “I’d be following it every step of the way. But I would have worked through it, made compromises, put restrictions on the liquor license.”
        Asked what restrictions she would want if the facility were to be behind her house, she suggested, “I’d want to limit outside dining after 10 p.m., and limit live entertainment to Friday and Saturday.” She added that noises of car doors slamming late at night and people talking could be a nuisance.

Public Loan Possible

        Opponents of the Inferno are also lobbying the State of Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which administers federal urban revitalization funding through its Neighborhood Business Development Program (NDBP). Ms. Kim is seeking an NDBP loan as part of her financing package.
        Dottie Myers, loan administrator for the NDBP program, acknowledged that Ms. Kim has applied for financing, but said confidentiality rules prevented her from discussing particulars of loan applications. If and when a loan is made, she said, the information will become public.
        “We want to assist projects that are good for the neighborhood,” said Ms. Myers. “We don’t assist tattoo or massage parlors. And we try not to do start-ups unless there’s a good management history.”
        The opponents are mounting a letter-writing and call-in campaign to city, state and federal legislators, protesting the use of their tax money for what they view as a public nuisance that would literally be right behind their back yards.

What If There’s A License Transfer?

        Ms. Kim, who has operated several food-related businesses in the city over the years, has a successful track record, and neighbors know this.
        “What happens when Ms. Kim decides to take a profit?” Ms. Schreck asked. “A new owner would be free to engage any kind of live entertainment and dancing. Our neighborhood would be forever changed, and we would have little or no recourse.”
        Ms. Helmick does not see a problem. She said she was “told by the Liquor Board” that a new owner would have to re-apply for the liquor license, and “at that time we could object” to a transfer.
        Ms. Schroeder of the Liquor Board clarified that if a licensed premises is open and operating at the time of a proposed transfer, the Liquor Board is not allowed to consider community needs and concerns beyond information regarding the character and fitness of the applicant for license transfer. The applicant may not have had a felony conviction, and must pass a background check. Only if a licensed premises stops operating for 90 days or more can the community’s “public need” objections to the relicensing be considered.

Not Inherently Evil”

        A city planning official who could only speak on condition of anonymity said, “This project is not inherently evil. It depends on the operation and management. That’s the problem with live entertainment everywhere in the city. If management is irresponsible, the surrounding community has a problem. There are no checks in the system because it’s dealt with as a zoning issue, not a license issue. It’s unfortunate that [live entertainment businesses] are under the zoning code, when they should be regulatory.”
        A public hearing on Ms. Kim’s request for a Class B liquor license for the Inferno will be held before the Baltimore City Liquor Board at 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 3, in room 215 of City Hall.

Buffer Zone Initiative Needed

        The Inferno controversy could have been avoided if the area had had “buffer zoning,” where high-intensity commercial uses are shielded from residential zones by less intensive kinds of businesses. At present, the Baltimore City zoning map shows many instances where there is no such buffer, forewarning of more controversies to come.
        The need for a city-wide buffer initiative may be rectified the next time the City undergoes a comprehensive rezoning--a process recommended by the Plan Baltimore initiative of Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) and others. The last time the City went through rezoning was in 1971, when it took 30 full-time staffers five years to complete the work. The City Council has begun gearing up for another round of rezoning by establishing a comprehensive rezoning task force.
        Until then, neighbors opposing uses of adjacent properties have to find effective ways to protest projects they find undesirable, even though they might be acceptable uses under the zoning code.
        Is all the effort and frustration and uncertainty worth it?
        “What’s the alternative?” asked Ms. Floyd. “If our neighborhood is under siege, it’s up to us to save it. What could be more important than protecting your family and your home?”

        See the Papermoon newsletter on the internet at ~diner/informers/informer8/hell.html.
        For information about the State of Maryland’s Neighborhood Business Development Program (NBDP), which offers below-market-rate financing of $25,000 to $500,000 in targeted business districts--including most of Baltimore City--call 410-209-5804. Grant money for nonprofits seeking to enhance a business district is also available; call 410-209-5810.
        Aperna Balakrishnan and Alice Cherbonnier contributed to this story.

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This story was published on June 28, 2000.