Hot response to zoning plans

Critics say city proposals should be part of comprehensive review

May 14, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

A series of proposed changes to Baltimore's zoning code that could have far-reaching implications for how neighborhoods will grow over the next several decades is attracting unusual attention to the city's typically sleepy debates over land use.

At least a half-dozen proposals - including ones allowing denser housing downtown and dictating what kind of music can be played in bars in Federal Hill and Fells Point - are advancing in the City Council, even as neighborhood groups and council members question the timing.

The measures have drawn criticism from some who believe that zoning changes should be considered as part of a comprehensive review of the code that City Hall is expected to undertake this year.

"The neighborhoods of this city should be looking at issues like this," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, referring to a zoning bill that would permit acoustic musical acts where performances currently are prohibited. "If you get it out there where people are talking, they begin to find what they could accept."

Others, including Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, argue that the city's zoning code - more than 30 years old - needs tweaking so developers can capitalize on a still-strong real estate market. Some of the bills have been in the works for years, long before the city embarked on its long-range planning process.

"All of these items, clearly, we would be working on anyway" despite long-range planning, said Gary Cole, chief of the land use and urban design division for the city's Department of Planning. "Essentially, what we're talking about is low-hanging fruit."

In an effort to expand downtown housing, one proposal would eliminate regulations that restrict the number of apartments or condominiums in a given building based on its lot size. With that constraint gone, housing developments could be built with greater density and height. Over 3,000 housing units have been built downtown since 1999, according to the council.

"The zoning that's in place now is really a reaction to the fear of tenements and slums, so they made sure no one could have small units in the downtown area," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which has pushed the legislation. "Now, we're getting to the point where the units that are built are expensive, and there aren't many efficiencies available."

Zoning code, often considered a dull facet of city government, can have a significant effect on everyday life - regulating the size of an apartment, setting the amount of parking required in a neighborhood, determining the type of businesses that can move into an area.

One of the more contentious measures this year would allow acoustic entertainment in bars and restaurants where performances are now prohibited - including portions of Fells Point and Federal Hill.

Drafted by Councilman James B. Kraft, the bill is intended to strike a balance between residents seeking quiet and neighboring business owners who argue that the city needs to improve its nightlife to stay competitive.

Kraft said the bill was created after a seafood restaurant on Thames Street, Kali's Court, wanted harp or piano music but discovered it was prohibited by zoning.

Under the bill, other businesses could have an acoustic guitar player or a singer - so long as the music was not amplified.

"Diners are expecting a certain experience here," said Eric Losin, a partner in the business. "The added ambience would create that."

While few quarrel with the notion of a quiet piano, some say the bill's language is so vague that it could permit other businesses to offer any type of acoustic show, from a three-piece group with drums to a marching band. At a hearing on the bill last week, one resident suggested the bill would technically allow any kind of performance - including mud wrestling - as long as it wasn't amplified.

"The idea of a piano tinkling in the corner softly is romantic, but it is not reality," Terri Goldberg, a 14-year resident of Federal Hill, told the council's Land Use and Transportation Committee. "The idea of having live entertainment a half-block from my house is very upsetting."

Cole, of the city's planning department, noted that the "limited-live entertainment" provisions would also prohibit bars from charging a cover, which could restrict the type of music performed.

While the entertainment bill is on hold for more review, others have moved more quickly. The City Council approved an ordinance Monday that would make it easier for the city to rezone multiple properties at once. Another bill, which would clear the way for taller hotel developments in a wide range of neighborhood business districts, is expected to be voted on tomorrow.

That proposal is intended, in part, to allow Roma Inns Inc., an Odenton-based developer, to build a 180-room hotel on the former Hillen Tire and Auto site in Oldtown, but the bill would also affect portions of Park Heights and the waterfront in Canton.

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