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Zoning chief Tanner denies Crossbar’s appeal

Backers sought City Hall’s help to lobby David Tanner, but he rules the controversial project cannot consolidate four storefronts on Cross Street

Above: Crossbar appealed to the Zoning Board to consolidate these four buildings on East Cross Street into an open-air beer garden but they were denied.

Amid a report that City Hall officials were being lobbied to influence his write-up of the decision, the city’s zoning chief, David C. Tanner, handed the group proposing a controversial beer garden in Federal Hill a harsh setback Friday – he denied almost their entire appeal.

The group trying to open Crossbar had come before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) in February seeking permission to allow them to expand a corner bar at 12/14 East Cross Street into two adjacent storefronts, raze all but the front wall of 14/16/18 East Cross Street, enclose the razed area to form an open-air courtyard and build an addition in the back.

The appeal hadn’t gotten enough votes to pass, but with multiple issues discussed at the hearing and political pressure causing concern, the scope of his written resolution was being keenly watched in Federal Hill and at City Hall.

The five-page resolution signed by Tanner and circulating in the community over the weekend appears definitive.

“We’re Gratified”

Tanner denied Crossbar’s request to consolidate the buildings and rejected two of the key exceptions they sought – to be excused from the outdoor seating restrictions and from the off-street parking requirement.

The zoning chief was especially withering about the argument that the four walls around the courtyard would render it an enclosed structure, thereby excusing it from the requirement for a “conditional use” to permit outdoor table service.

“The Zoning Administrator has never viewed a structure without a roof as being enclosed,” wrote Tanner, executive director of the BMZA.

If the Board were to agree with Crossbar’s reasoning, “any business could propose to house themselves within four walls and without a ceiling and thereby expose the surrounding communities to unrestrained noise and other intrusive effects (odors etc.),” Tanner wrote.

Opponents in the neighborhood, who have been saying the establishment would be overly large, noisy and send boisterous patrons into a bar-saturated area,  applauded the decision last night.

“We’re gratified to see that BMZA stepped up and did the right thing,” said Diana Sugg, co-chair of the FHNA’s liquor and entertainment advisory committee, stressing that the group had just received a copy of the decision and was still assessing it.

“The Zoning Board should be commended for upholding the law and the principles these laws were originally intended to enforce,” said Michael Brassert, who lives five blocks from where the bar is proposed. “This is a win for not only the neighborhood but for businesses that need the clarity of precedent.”

“The Push Begins”

But judging by the Crossbar Twitter account, the project’s backers remain defiant and seem confident they can still open in October.

Principals in the project, Brian McComas of Ryleigh’s Oyster and architect Ian P. Sokoloski, did not respond to calls and emails from The Brew last night.

Also contacted were their attorney, Joseph R. Woolman III, and their representative in the community, Baltimore Parking Authority chairman Peter Auchincloss. No response so far.

But shortly after The Brew’s online inquiries, @CrossBar was announcing to followers the one favorable part of Tanner’s ruling – that he saw no need for a variance from the rear-yard setback rule since the existing buildings onsite already extend nearly to the property line.

“The rear yard setback for the biergarten is approved by the BMZA! The push begins to get open in time for #Oktoberfest2014,” the account tweeted.

Tanner’s keenly-awaited write-up, more than a month in the making, came after copies of emails in the zoning case file suggested that Woolman and Auchincloss had pushed City Councilman William H. Cole IV and the Mayor’s Deputy Chief for Economic Development Kaliope Parthemos to persuade Tanner to write a favorable resolution.

As The Brew reported, minutes after being lobbied by Auchincloss, Parthemos sent Tanner an email with the subject line “Crossbar/BMZA” and a two-word message, “Let’s discuss.”

Cole acknowledged discussing the Crossbar zoning case with Tanner at a private function. Both Cole and Tanner say their conversation was not improper.

Glass Roof Strategy

Judging by the emails, Woolman and Auchincloss had been focused on the setback and parking issues.

They argued  before the board that Crossbar should not have to adhere to the off-street parking requirement because the zoning code does not specifically list taverns.  (The board staff had determined that at 3,000 square feet, the establishment would have to have at least eight off-street parking places). But Tanner rejected their argument.

Crossbar's new strategy to win approval from the city - a glass roof. (Source: @CrossBar)

Crossbar’s new strategy to win approval from the city: a glass roof. (Source: @CrossBar)

He noted that even though the zoning code doesn’t require it, “it has been the standard practice and operating procedure of the Zoning Administrator and the Board since the enactment of the Zoning Code in 1971 to apply the parking requirement. . . to restaurants and taverns.” He noted that the appellants does not have a parking plan, valet parking agreement or parking lot lease.

As for the outdoor seating issue, Crossbar has been touting a new plan that appeared to be aimed at solving that regulatory problem – a glass roof. There’s a drawing of the new design, circulating on Twitter, though it doesn’t appear to be on file at the Zoning Board.

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