Still A Menace

Our View: The City Must Find A Way To Shutter Suite Ultralounge Nightclub

August 26, 2009

A lively night life and after-hours scene are indispensable to city living. But the charm fades quickly when it's accompanied by gunfire. Since last year, residents of Mount Vernon and Mid-Town have been trying to rid their neighborhood of Suite Ultralounge, a bottle club located in the basement of the Belvedere Hotel that has been linked to a string of shootings, robberies and assaults in the area. But on Monday, a city court judge ruled that the club can remain open - at least for now - despite a nearly yearlong effort by the city liquor board to shut it down.

That's hardly the verdict neighborhood residents, city officials and police wanted to hear, especially given that the court's decision appears to hinge on a legal loophole created by a recent change in state law. The change last year gave the board authority to regulate so-called bottle clubs - establishments where patrons bring their own alcohol rather than purchase it there. But because Ultralounge's license falls under a different category than those issued for bars and restaurants, the court ruled the liquor board cannot revoke it before drawing up new rules and regulations for doing so.

This is partly the board's fault. It assumed, falsely as it turned out, that the procedure for revoking Ultralounge's license last November was the same as that for bars and restaurants. Had its members done their legal homework, they would have realized that they needed new regs before they could shutter the club. The board is writing those rules now and will present them in September. But it's not clear even then whether the club can be closed based on violations that occurred before the new rules went into effect.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Kaye Allison also bears some responsibility for residents' frustration. In the interest of fairness, the liquor board allowed the club to stay open while its November license revocation was being appealed. But then Judge Allison let the case drag out far longer than anyone could have imagined; as a result, residents who hoped to see a quick resolution of the matter are learning only this week that they're going to have to put up with the club's presence for at least several more months.

That's too long, as far as many residents are concerned. They complain of unruly crowds and noisome disturbances into the wee hours that keep them awake all night and make them fearful of walking the streets. The club is a menace to public safety, they say, and recent indictments in federal court suggest it also does double duty as a hangout for a violent prison gang. Last year, a man and a woman were shot and another victim was stabbed in an attack linked to club patrons, and in May two pedestrians were viciously assaulted as they passed through the area. This summer a shooting on East Eager Street further frayed residents' nerves.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and others have criticized Judge Allison's decision, saying the club is a dangerous nuisance that should have been shut long ago. She's right, and the city has the power to padlock the club on its own using the same public nuisance law it previously used to close a North Avenue liquor store that had become a magnet for crime and the site of a fatal shooting. In the past, the law has often proved cumbersome and difficult to enforce. But it may be the best tool at hand to deal with a situation that's plainly another tragedy waiting to happen.

As a last resort, the liquor board could simply refuse to renew Ultralounge's license when it expires in November, though the club would remain a ticking time bomb until then. It shouldn't take somebody else getting killed or seriously injured before officials find a way to purge the community of what is so obviously a danger to public safety.

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