Hot spot turns up heat on the city

Restaurant owners press for an exception to law reserving waterfront for industry

Issue is work or play along Baltimore waterfront


When Baltimore officials ceremoniously signed a law to insulate the city's harbor industries from the seemingly insatiable waterfront housing market, they did so at a Locust Point shipping terminal for symbolism.

In a part of town where heavy industry was butting up against upscale homes and creating friction, they drew a line. No more homes, hotels, white-collar offices or restaurants were to cross into the "Maritime Industrial Overlay District" for 10 years.

Not two years later, a popular South Baltimore restaurant is trying to hop the border.

The owners of Little Havana, a Key Highway hot spot that young people pack on warm nights to sip mojitos, are campaigning hard for an exception to the law. They bought a piece of land just inside the protected area and hope to move the restaurant there when their lease expires.

Tim Whisted, Little Havana's co-owner, says that after a decade in business, he should be offered the same protection by the city as those shipyards and factories:

"I employ people just like they do and I deserve the right to continue my business just like everyone else. We're asking them to just make an exception so that we can all live in harmony there."

Industrial businesses that fought for years to get the protected district forcefully oppose an exception of any kind.

"What precedent does that set?" asked Kathy Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "If you do this, why not the next one? And why not the one after that?"

Signed into law in September 2004, the overlay district wraps around Baltimore's harbor from Curtis Bay to Canton.

Its goal is to prevent the ever-gentrifying waterfront from pushing out shipping companies and the auxiliary businesses that thrive around them - an industry that still employs 15,700 people and provides the city and state with $216 million in taxes yearly.

With their lease set to expire in 2006, the Little Havana owners bought the site of a former boiler company two years ago, just as the city was enacting the overlay district. (Their lease has since been extended two years.) The waterfront lot, less than an acre, is next to the Domino plant.

Little Havana's owners, oblivious to the site's built-in prohibitions, thought they had found the perfect place, just 1,400 feet down Key Highway from the current restaurant, with a building on the water that's ripe for conversion.

"This property suits our restaurant perfectly," Whisted says. "We need to stay in our same customer base. If not, we would lose our business, basically."

Determined to follow through with the move, Whisted and his partners have launched a crusade to persuade city leaders to let them do it.

They've pleaded with customers to send letters to City Council members and hired politically savvy advisers to help their mission - attorney Martin Cadogan, who is Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign treasurer, and Al Barry, a longtime development consultant and former assistant director of the city's planning department.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, has gotten so many letters, they're filling a box in his office.

"I realize just how important industry is to the City," reads one, "but industry will not be harmed by allowing Timmy to operate his restaurant on his property. ... No[t] allowing the move to happen makes absolutely no sense to anyone with a logical mind."

And another: "No one likes the idea that there will be less port-related business in the future, but it seems inescapable. ... Allowing Little Havana to move down the street would preserve a valued neighborhood restaurant."

Reisinger is unmoved. In fact, he says that even if every community group in his district stood up in favor of the restaurant's move, he still would not support it.

"They should not move the boundaries," the councilman says. "As a matter of fact, I think they should extend the life of the law for another four or five years."

The mayor's office, despite the insider connections, seemed equally cool to the idea. "From our perspective, rules are rules," says the mayor's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory.

Those who've anchored their livelihoods on the harbor say the city had better hold the line on the boundaries and not make a change because someone "didn't do due diligence" before buying some property.

"You don't need a bar slapped next to one of the largest factories in the city of Baltimore," argues Rupert Denny, general manager of C. Steinweg Baltimore Inc. and the spokesman for Private Terminal Operators, a group representing a dozen private stevedores.

"They want to close the door after the horse is gone."

Whisted says he's willing to sign an agreement with Domino - or any other industrial property owner - pledging not to complain about their noise or grime or any other factory realities.

His offer, he says, has been soundly rebuffed.

"They won't even discuss it," he says with a bitter laugh, then quickly adds that he's still hoping the city will come though, and soon his customers will be sipping their mojitos under the pink glow of the Domino sign.

"I gotta believe they'll go to bat for me," Whisted says, "when push comes to shove."

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