Fells Point pioneers feeling pushed out

Latino merchants worry new zoning may stifle growing businesses on S. Broadway


Fourteen years ago, Nicolas Ramos saw raw potential in the abandoned rowhouses and desolate storefronts in Upper Fells Point - and he was right.

Today, South Broadway is a flourishing business corridor, a hodgepodge of Latino-owned groceries, cell phone shops and eclectic restaurants surrounded by high-end residential development. And Ramos, who owns the Mexican restaurant Arcos on Broadway, credits pioneering Latino entrepreneurs for converting the area into a destination.

Yet Ramos and other merchants fear the worst of a community task force's zoning proposal that would alter a three-block area of Broadway full of Latino-owned businesses. They believe the proposal - a complex set of rules that could limit future expansion - appears only to stifle the growth the community worked so hard to foster.

"They need to understand when we came here years ago, everything was boarded up, there were drugs, rats, prostitutes," Ramos said. "We came here to work hard. And we made it better."

A task force began meeting in March to develop the proposal, which will eventually be voted on by the Baltimore City Council. It's part of a citywide endeavor to update zoning, which in some places has not been altered since the 1970s.

Although the Historic Southeastern Zoning Task Force's proposal covers an area from Little Italy to Patterson Park, the source of this dispute is three blocks of South Broadway, between East Pratt and Bank streets.

Community organizations defend the plan, saying it keeps rowdy bars out of their neighborhood and streamlines clunky zoning rules. They say the merchants have misconceptions about the proposal and should not feel threatened.

But merchants, most of them Latino, fear the changes will prevent their businesses from expanding. They worry the proposal targeted them unfairly, since the change would affect just three blocks along a busy stretch of Broadway. And worse, they feel their voices were ignored from the start.

Everyone agrees the zoning rules along the three-block stretch are complex and, at times, conflicting, only adding to the frustration on all sides.

On one hand, zoning rules allow a variety of retail. But simultaneously, an urban renewal ordinance enacted in the 1970s effectively limits many of the uses. Even though the ordinance should exclude such businesses as carryouts, music stores, bars and second-story shops, all of those entities exist. Some were grandfathered in before the ordinance, while others have simply sprouted as officials looked the other way, said members of the task force.

The task force plan defers to the ordinance, preventing new bars and requiring most expansions to go before the city zoning board. In effect, it would draw a line in the concrete at Bank Street, separating the raucous end of Broadway near the waterfront from the area of Upper Fells Point that community groups say is becoming more residential.

"Part of this is a misunderstanding," said Matthew Haag, president of Fells Prospect Inc., a neighborhood group comprising Upper Fells Point and West Canton. "This would simply clarify language and eliminate overlapping zoning. Any business there would be grandfathered in."

Yet Gelmin Portillo, who owns Giant Express, an international shipping business in the 100 block of Broadway, said the plan would prevent him from expanding his shop to the second floor.

"It doesn't make sense to go against the reasonable way that the businesses are growing," he said. "Why aren't they encouraging us instead of trying to limit us?"

Haag said the groups want to keep the area's character more residential.

"We have some bars in the community where there is public drunkenness, rowdy behavior and loud noises," he said. "Those are the things that we are trying to prevent as we build a great, diverse, vibrant community. This is one way that kind of destructive growth can be controlled."

But it wasn't always this way, reminds Portillo. Before homeowners snapped up $350,000 rowhouses, the area was an emerging commercial district.

"The homeowners complain about the truck deliveries, they complain about people riding their bikes in the street, they say everything is so noisy," said Portillo. "But if you buy in Fells Point, you need to expect some noise. This is a city. This is not the suburbs."

Two members of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce sat on the task force, but few merchants said they knew about the meetings until a couple of months ago.

Latino advocates acknowledge miscommunication among their various groups, but argue that not enough outreach was done. For instance, the Mayor's Office of Hispanic Affairs says it was not notified of the task force meetings until August.

"We were a little concerned, because the meetings had been going on since March," said Rafael Regales, a Hispanic liaison.

The issue seems to have only aggravated underlying tensions between Latino business owners and their Anglo neighbors in a rapidly gentrifying community.

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