Fells Point debate involves residents and Hispanic merchants who feel singled out

Zoning about more than three blocks

March 16, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

It's only three blocks, but questions over the future development of this sliver of South Broadway have embroiled Upper Fells Point residents and business owners in a dispute for nearly two years.

For business owners, many of them Hispanic, a community task force's proposal to rezone the area is about more than a complex set of rules determining the types of permissible businesses. They view the plan as an attempt to stifle the growth of a distinctively Hispanic business district.

Longtime residents who helped devise the proposal say they never intended to single out a particular group. The plan seeks only to streamline clunky zoning rules and prevent the growth of liquor stores and rowdy bars, they say.

Then there are those who see both sides and the nuances.

"I have deep empathy for what our small businesses are trying to achieve up there," said Ellen von Karajan, executive director of the Preservation Society of Fells Point, who wrote a letter last month to community groups, Hispanic merchants and city leaders, pleading for compromise.

"The Hispanic businesses make Fells Point that much more of a special place. But within the category of zoning being considered, there are lots of uses that would not jibe well with a primarily residential district."

Some could disrupt the historic character of the buildings, von Karajan said, but she added that she hopes the parties involved can find middle ground.

A Baltimore City Council subcommittee is scheduled to vote on the proposal Monday, and the full City Council is likely to take it up next month.

The conflict took shape shortly after the Historic Southeastern Zoning Task Force began meeting in March 2005 as part of a citywide endeavor to revamp zoning.

More than two dozen community groups examined a swath encompassing nearly 2,000 properties from Fayette Street to the waterfront and from the Jones Falls Expressway to Patterson Park Avenue.

Plans for a few areas quickly became contentious, including a debate over the future of the St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church complex, a portion of which a developer is considering for construction of condominiums.

Discussion about South Broadway between East Pratt and Bank streets has been particularly challenging, with residents and business owners designated to alter a frustrating mix of zoning rules.

Last year, the task force approved a proposal that included removing a 1970s-era urban renewal plan in the three blocks. Existing taverns and restaurants would be allowed to remain, but the plan would prevent new bars and such businesses as massage parlors, liquor stores and fraternity and sorority houses.

The city planning commission voted last month to amend the task force's plan allowing for those uses and many more.

The meeting was packed with members of the Hispanic Business Association, formed a little over a year ago after members felt singled out by the task force's suggestions about altering zoning where their businesses are situated.

Members of Patterson High School's Hispanic students organization attended, hoisting placards with words of support for the Hispanic business community.

Neighborhood associations have been adamantly opposed to expanded zoning provisions. They insist on drawing a distinction between Upper Fells Point's growing residential area and the waterfront entertainment district to the south.

"We don't want new bars on Broadway because it's likely to make our lives difficult," said Gerald Majer, with the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association. "It's as simple as that."

Merchants see a thriving commercial district, one that would benefit from zoning changes. Some say the dispute touches on simmering tensions between Hispanic business owners and neighbors in the rapidly gentrifying community.

"The problem for some people is they spent all this money on housing; they are afraid of noise and traffic," said Nicolas Ramos, president of the Hispanic Business Association and owner of Arcos, a Mexican restaurant on South Broadway. "But they need to know this is a city. They need to be expecting city life."

Ramos looks with pride at the mix of mom-and-pop groceries, carry-outs and eclectic restaurants that have sprouted in Fells Point since he moved to the area more than a decade ago.

Pioneering Hispanic entrepreneurs helped transform the district, once overrun with drugs and prostitution, long before high-end rowhouses became a selling point, he said. Ramos envisions a Hispanic business district that expands on those strengths, running from the waterfront to Johns Hopkins Hospital, he said.

Hispanic community advocates point out that expanded zoning would also allow china and glass shops, dry cleaners and computer centers.

"If Fells Point and Little Italy and Federal Hill can all have these restaurants, why can't we have a Spanish town?" Ramos said. "All we want is to have the same opportunities as everyone else."

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