Fells Point residents cheer crackdown on bar

Critics' hope is that license suspension leads to closure

March 01, 2010|By Brent Jones | brent.jones@baltsun.com

When Denise Whitman moved to Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood 35 years ago, the strip joint at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Washington Street fit right in.

But that was before rowhouses became trendy, and before young professionals and families replaced dockworkers and factory hands. Now, she and many of her neighbors say, it's time for the club to go.

"Adult entertainment does not belong side-by-side with residential properties," said Whitman. "The neighborhood has changed. It's become a little more gentrified than the era of the seaman and longshoreman working down here."

Whitman and other Fells Point residents cheered last week when city authorities essentially shut down Chubbies, an infamous institution in their midst. A city panel suspended the bar's liquor license for a year, but residents hope the ruling drives it out of business for good and allows the neighborhood community association to declare victory after a decade-long fight.

An end to Chubbies would mark the latest - and perhaps one of the final - steps in the transformation of Fells Point. Once solidly blue-collar, the neighborhood has been flooded with professionals paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for homes that are blocks from the water.

Whitman and some of her neighbors freely admit they want Chubbies gone to keep their property values from tanking. A Washington Street home a block from the bar sold recently for $330,000, and nearby owners hope for similar investment returns.

If the club continues to operate, some critics say, violence is sure to become more common. They point to a rash of incidents in the past year on The Block, Baltimore's adult entertainment district, and say they don't want a repeat on their streets.

Chubbies' future remains uncertain, however. The club's owner, Dwight McCurdy, referred questions to his lawyer, Peter Prevas, who said a decision on what happens next has yet to be made. Even if McCurdy chooses to sell, adult entertainment licenses are tied to their location. There are only about 35 such licenses in the city, with no more being issued.

McCurdy bought the business four years ago from Brian Shulman, who was forced to sell after he and a partner bought an adult entertainment license that allowed them to open the Scores bar on Fallsway. (City regulations prohibit one person from owning multiple adult licenses.)

Prevas called the liquor board's yearlong suspension "severe" for violations that included selling alcohol after hours. McCurdy has attempted to work with residents, the lawyer said, and agreed in April to certain conditions so that the community association would drop its opposition to a license renewal.

But a rowdy Fourth of July party during which police were called three times severed ties between McCurdy and his neighbors. Hundreds of Fells Point residents signed a petition to have Chubbies brought before the liquor board for violating its agreement with the community.

The incident led to the liquor license suspension, which takes effect April 1.

"We know some will say this was no big deal," said the liquor board commission chairman, Stephan Fogelman, acknowledging that clubs in other cities such as New York stay open late. "I understand the arguments against it. But the community made their case. And that's what counts."

McCurdy said he shouldn't be punished because the party was not held by him, but by a potential buyer. Since then, the purchase deal has fallen through, he said. The club has been closed since July, and is undergoing renovations.

Residents have been complaining about the place for years. They say bouncers have aggressively recruited patrons from the street, a practice referred to as "barking" and generally reserved to clubs on The Block.

Mary Beth Lennon, who works at a Cristo Rey Jesuit High School a block away on Eastern Avenue, said a student was harassed as she walked past the establishment. And other students walking past can see inside when the club door is open, a violation of city law.

"The other issue is dancers hanging out in front and the bouncer sitting on a stool out front," she said. "It's exposing our students indirectly to that."

But not all residents feel the same way. Sonya O'Shea, who has lived across the street from the bar for a decade, said she hasn't seen any major violations.

"And as long as they're not being a nuisance, they're fine," she said.

Even the most vigilant Chubbies critics concede that the club has largely avoided major incidents that doom similar businesses in the city. There has not been a shooting, stabbing or major fight at the club in recent memory.

The violations tend to be nuisances such as loud noises, trash, and parking violations by patrons who use the rear alley for their cars.

"But the crowd they brought to the neighborhood was a bunch of disrespectful people who made this neighborhood feel unsafe," said Adrianna Furgison, who lives with her mother in the 400 block of S. Washington St. "And it's a lot of litter from the club. Parking is also a problem because they don't have parking for their people, and they park in our space."

Tony Tochterman, who owns a fishing gear shop with his wife in the 1900 block of Eastern Ave., said he has seen customers linger on the street into the early morning when he is opening up his shop.

"With the neighborhood being the way it is today, and I've lived and worked down here since the 1960s, it's a lot different now," Tochterman said. "We work here and we live here. And it's more of a family place. I hate to say yuppie, but [it's] young couples moving in or retired couples coming back. And that's just the way it is."

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