Rezoning reveals clash of Fells Point cultures

Tension: A plan to separate businesses and residences draws complaints that it violates the neighborhood's character.

September 11, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

At One-Eyed Mike's in Fells Point, the deeply scratched and scuffed floor bears testament to the thousands of people who through the years have pulled stools across its wooden planks to take seats at the bar.

But the seasoned tavern, which seems comfortably tucked among South Bond Street rowhouses, sits at an uneasy intersection of cobblestone and stainless steel, an ale- and whiskey-stained vestige of the neighborhood's rowdy past smack in the middle of its ever-more-refined future.

Some would say Fells Point's mixing of homes, bars and quirky shops is as natural to its character as the water that slaps at its piers. Tourists and suburbanites crowd its narrow streets for the irresistible hodgepodge, the endless selection of places to launch a beery night. Yet, others - many who live in the neighborhood - say the jumble breeds conflict.

A task force that has worked for months to update the zoning for most of Southeast Baltimore, from Little Italy to Patterson Park, has decided the jumble must go. It has created a map that draws a line between residential and commercial, keeping homes next to homes, stores next to stores. It has also recommended less intense commercial uses for some streets, restricting where restaurants, bars and even antiques shops can open.

The plan hasn't caused a stir in largely residential neighborhoods such as Butchers Hill or in Little Italy, which has embraced and cultivated its restaurant-centric reputation. But it has deeply upset many in Fells Point - even though businesses already there would be able to stay.

`What we're going to be'

"Pro-change people are saying, `You're grandfathered in; you have nothing to worry about,' " says Michael Maraziti, owner of One-Eyed Mike's. "I'm tired of hearing about that. It's not just about my business. It's the neighborhood as a whole. It's about what we're going to be 20 years from now."

Both home- and business owners are expected to come together tomorrow to try to hash out their differences before the task force submits the plan to the city. The goal is to have the City Council vote on the zoning changes by the end of the year.

The southeast revisions are the first phase of an effort to update zoning throughout Baltimore, revamping code that in some cases hasn't been updated since the 1970s.

"We really thought it was time to give this area a fresh look. A lot of things have changed," said city planner Laurie Feinberg, who, along with City Councilman James B. Kraft, has guided the task force's homeowner and business group representatives.

What has changed in Fells Point is what has changed in most of Southeast Baltimore - and all along the city's waterfront. It's more and more people spending more and more money to move there, investing in new condos or loading once-scrappy rowhouses with granite and top-of-the-line appliances.

As the real estate market skyrockets, the area is increasingly appealing for retail, too, with higher-end boutiques and restaurants eager to set down roots amid the new prosperity.

But Fells Point is conflicted. Homeowners relish their ability to walk home from pubs after a few drinks, enjoy having restaurants just around the corner and love living in the sort of neighborhood a primetime TV show would use as a backdrop. But they don't want too many more food and beverage joints - particularly ones that feature live music. Businesses thrive from the neighborhood patronage but are exasperated dealing with residents who complain about noise and crowds.

On Bond Street, where an upscale seafood restaurant, a hair salon and a running shoe store join One-Eyed Mike's, the task force would impose residential zoning. Maraziti worries that the move would prevent him from expanding someday.

"You're dealing with people's livelihoods. You're dealing with small-business owners who struggle every day to make a buck. To me that's what this neighborhood is all about," he says, apologizing for getting worked up. "People's homes they bought for $150,000 are suddenly worth $700,000, and all of a sudden it needs to be a gated community."

`Not taking rights away'

Jennifer Etheridge, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, is equally vehement that capping live entertainment and strengthening residential streets is the best way to give the evolving community some equilibrium.

"We're not taking any rights away from anyone," she says. "There's plenty of live entertainment in Fells Point. ... We can't handle much more."

Kay Hogan, a past leader of the association, agrees, saying that Fells Point has enough bars, certainly on streets where people are trying to make homes.

"We don't want to eliminate the funkiness and variety," she says. "We're in a transition now, and I'm not sure you're going to see a lot of street mixing from now on. It's just a fact of life."

But taking the blend out of Fells Point would sap its very essence, some fear, and erase the allure that keeps visitors' dollars flowing there.

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