Nightclub gets OK for 4 a.m. closing

Redwood Trust wins approval from city for restaurant license

Customers must stay seated

Owner to take fight over ban on dancing after 2 a.m. to court

January 14, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A new downtown nightclub likely will be staying open until 4 a.m. instead of 2 a.m. weekends under a recent liquor board decision. But the club's owner may have to convince a judge that patrons should be able to dance during those last two hours.

Nicholas A. Piscatelli, owner of Redwood Trust, an ornate club in a former bank building at Calvert and Redwood streets, thinks a market exists for upscale, late-night clubbing in Baltimore.

Standing in his way, and that of any other licensed club, is a state law that says restaurants -- but not clubs or bars -- in Baltimore can stay open past 2 a.m. and serve food so long as customers are seated. Clubs that have a liquor license and lack a full kitchen must close at 2 a.m.

On Thursday, Redwood Trust won approval for a restaurant liquor license after promising to install a stove and hood. That would mean it could operate, alcohol-free, between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Redwood Trust now closes at 2 a.m.

But the law remains an obstacle to the club's goal of creating an after-hours dance scene. Piscatelli said he would challenge that law in Baltimore Circuit Court on constitutional and other grounds.

Another option would be to push the General Assembly to change the law. But one legislator who helped pass the law in 2000, state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a South Baltimore Democrat, has said no change is needed.

Melvin J. Kodenski, a lawyer for Redwood Trust, said the tenor of downtown nightlife is at stake. The law, he said, imposes a dourness that is out of step with the city's character.

"Baltimore is a gin mill town," Kodenski said. "That Puritanism is a myth."

So long as the law is on the books, liquor inspectors will enforce it, according to Samuel T. Daniels Jr., chief inspector for the city Board of Liquor License Commissioners. The board has issued violation notices to the China Room, at South and Lombard streets, for allowing dancing after 2 a.m.

Redwood Trust opened Nov. 2 in the former Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co. building. On Dec. 8, inspectors shut it down at 2:15 a.m. after a heated exchange with the staff.

"The whole thing got a little out of hand -- on both sides," Piscatelli said Friday. "A lot of things were said and done that when everyone cooled off they regretted."

On Thursday, the board imposed $3,500 in fines for being open after 2 a.m. and defying inspectors' initial orders to shut down. The board, however, agreed to await the outcome of the club's legal challenge before collecting the fine.

Kodenski said the lawsuit would claim that the club's zoning approval to operate after 2 a.m. should trump the liquor board's power to require a 2 a.m. closing time if alcohol consumption stops. It will also claim the law violates the Constitution's equal protection clause because certain businesses can operate past 2 a.m. but others cannot, he said.

If he can successfully challenge the restriction on after-hours operations, businesses with proper zoning could stay open past 2 a.m., Kodenski said. And, he said, the limit on dancing would vanish.

The law was passed after a Fells Point nightclub attempted to remain open past 2 a.m., claiming liquor laws did not specify what time a bar had to close, only that alcohol sales had to end.

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