Future uncertain for taverns, too

Written by on January 16, 2013 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

Owner Mitchell Pressman serves a customer at the Chesapeake Wine Company. Photo by Erik Zygmont

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Canton wine enthusiasts have been stopping by Chesapeake Wine Company for a glass of wine, a gourmet snack, and maybe a bottle to take home for 15 years now.

It is, among some residents, the oenophile’s go-to wine shop, but that could all change if proposed city rezoning of taverns passes in its current form.

Mitchell Pressman, who owns Chesapeake Wine Company, located in the Can Company, says that the zoning changes proposed in Transform Baltimore will “radically impact the way I do business.”

One of the many objectives of the zoning rewrite is to reduce the density of alcohol outlets in the city. The Health Department cites research that shows a connection between a high concentration of off-premise alcohol sales outlets or liquor stores and high rates of violent crime. What’s more, they say more than half of city neighborhoods surveyed by the department identified alcohol outlet density as a top health concern.

The majority of these liquor outlets are the 128 or so non-conforming liquor stores located in residential neighborhoods, that, through grandfathering, have been allowed to operate as non-conforming for years.

But taverns that sell more packaged goods than alcohol for onsite consumption are targeted by the zoning rewrite as well, particularly taverns that operate as “de-facto liquor stores—the city characterizes these establishments as a major public health concern and contributor to violent crime.
Chesapeake Wine Company has a BD-7 liquor license, which means it is technically a “tavern.” This license allows Chesapeake to be open seven days a week.

According to Pressman, there is currently no requirement that taverns sell a certain percentage of alcohol for onsite consumption. But the zoning rewrite in its current form will require all BD-7 licensed taverns to devote half of their tavern space to onsite consumption and to prove that more than 50 percent of the alcohol they sell is consumed on site.

Pressman says he’s compliant on the space aspect of the proposal. Chesapeake Wine has 10 tables for drinking wine and eating and a full bar that seats seven in the center of the establishment. Only about 25 percent of his sales, however, are for onsite consumption, and about half of that is food.

Tavern owners’ options are either to adjust their business model and sales mix, convert to a liquor store if zoning allows, or close and transfer their license. Taverns will have two years from the date of the rezoning passing—mid-to-late 2013—to make changes. If they don’t comply, they have to stop selling alcohol.

“If the re-zoning passes, we would have to give up our BD-7 license or make changes such as installing a kitchen,” Pressman says.

The rationale for the kitchen is that more food sales would increase on-site wine sales.

If he gave up the BD-7 license, he’d have to buy a six-day retail license.

”But if I did that I would be non-compliant with my lease,” he said. “We’re required to be open seven days a week.”

Pressman signed his second 10-year lease about four years ago

He said that getting a six-day license, provided the Can Company would modify his lease, “honestly, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but who’s going to pay my legal fees.?”

Pressman added that he feels blindsided by the proposed re-zoning.

“The first I heard about the proposed changes was when a lawyer called me and asked if I wanted to put him on retainer! I never heard a word from the Planning Commission, and as far as I can tell, the Liquor Board is not involved at all. ”

Pressman says he understands the city’s concerns about liquor outlets. He’s a lifelong city resident and one of the original tenants in The Can Company, but he feels that his wine bar is a community asset and will be “collateral damage” in the city’s efforts to do a good thing.

The costs of dealing with this zoning change, should it be approved, will be substantial.

“I’m looking at tens of thousands of dollars. The lawyers will get rich on this,” he says.
Pressman created a petition opposing the requirement that BD-7 taverns have more than 50 percent on-site alcohol sales, and has more than 100 signatures so far.

Councilman Jim Kraft is aware of Pressman’s predicament.

“The Councilman believes that there are legitimate concerns about how those types of businesses will be impacted,” Kristyn Oldendorf, Chief of Staff at Kraft’s office,wrote in an email.

She noted that several business owners and residents have already contacted Kraft’s office, and that the staff is keeping all input on record for consideration. The City Council is scheduled to begin its hearings on the zoning rewrite in April.

Last Thursday, the Planning Commission held a hearing specifically on how the zoning rewrite will affect liquor outlets.

More than 200 people attended. Pressman and 74 other business owners—including Bin 604, a wine shop in Harbor East—and citizens signed up to give testimony.

“There’s a lot of intense feeling about this,” said Pressman, who was impressed with the turnout. “The hearing. Well,  it’s been the one lucid thing about this process so far.”

by Danielle Sweeney

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