Alcohol Outlet Density Reduction: Setting the Record Straight

Although there’s a lot more to Baltimore’s new zoning code than closing non-conforming liquor stores, it has been the most discussed part of the code in the media, and its passage is CPHA’s top priority.  Unfortunately, there’s been a ton of misinformation on alcohol outlet density reduction from those opposed to it and from some media outlets that don’t completely understand this issue.  We’ve created this page to help those interested in this part of the code get through the spin and understand what’s happening.

What is going on with liquor stores anyway?

According to standards set by Baltimore’s own liquor board and the Centers for Disease Control, there should be one liquor license for every 1,000 residents.  This means that Baltimore should have about 625 licenses.  However, the city currently has about 1,330 licenses.  That’s more than twice of the number it should have! The proposed code has three ways of reducing establishments that sell alcohol for-off site consumption.

The first involves requiring new liquor stores to be no less than 300 feet apart from each other in all zoning districts with the exception of downtown.  The purpose of this is to prevent the saturation of liquor stores in a particular area.

The second involves requiring establishments with BD-7  licenses (taverns) to actually function as taverns.  The idea behind the BD-7 license is that these establishments are supposed to primarily function as bars where most alcohol is consumed on site and there is only a limited number of sales for off-site consumption.  As a result, BD-7 establishments are allowed to have  longer hours than those stores that sell only for use off site.  They are also allowed to be open on Sundays.  Currently, the only requirement is that BD-7s have an area where alcoholic beverages can be consumed on site.

Unfortunately, many BD-7 licensees abuse this privilege.  Often they will only have one or two stools available with very little counter space and mainly function as liquor stores.  In recent months a number of BD-7 establishments have been cited by the liquor board for not providing any space for on-site consumption.

These licensees refuse to get a packaged goods license because the BD-7 license allows these stores to be open for longer hours and on Sundays.  As a result, communities located near these establishments must deal with the negative effects of these businesses for longer hours than regular liquor stores that can only sell alcohol for off site consumption.  It’s also not fair to those tavern owners whose establishments do function as taverns and to owners of regular liquor stores.

The new code would require BD-7 licensees to devote 50% of their space and sales to on-site consumption by two years after the code’s passage.  Councilman Reisinger – a former tavern owner himself – may submit an amendment that would increase this even further.  The purpose of this provision is to mandate that taverns function as taverns – not as liquor stores.

The third and most controversial part involves phasing out non-conforming Class A (packaged goods establishments)  liquor stores from residential areas.  A Class A establishment is  best defined as a standard liquor store that sells alcohol for off-site consumption.  Recognizing that liquor stores are not an appropriate use for a residential area, Baltimore City banned them from residential zones when it passed its last zoning code in 1971.  However, those liquor stores already in existence were allowed to stay open.  The hope was that these stores would eventually close down.  More than forty years later, this has not occurred.  The new code mandates that within two years of the code’s passage, these nonconforming establishments must stop selling alcoholic beverages for offsite consumption.  The stores are allowed to remain open if they stop selling alcohol.  They can also transfer the license to another location or sell it.  Contrary to some media reports, the city is not revoking any liquor licenses.  Only the state has the authority to do this.

What’s so bad about liquor stores?

There is an overwhelming amount of academic research that suggest high densities of liquor stores have a negative impact on their surrounding communities.

A 2013 report from the Abell Foundation provided a brief summary of research that has been performed in large cities such as Baltimore:

  • In Los Angeles, it was found that higher liquor store density was associated with higher assault rates, while a reduction in liquor stores led to a statistically significant reduction in assault rates.
  • In New Orleans, a study found that a 10 percent increase in liquor stores would result in a 2.4 percent increase in homicides.
  • A study conducted in Washington, DC found that there was a significant association between violent crime and alcohol outlets in a community, independent of all other factors such as neighborhood violent crime rates, number of amounts, and the amount of drugs.

The Abell Foundation report suggests that liquor stores may themselves actually be a cause of violent crime.

A study focused solely on Baltimore found that, after controlling for other factors such as drug arrests, housing occupancy, income level, and minority population, we can expect a 2.2 percent increase in crime for every one alcohol outlet in a community.  Given how many alcohol outlets exist in some neighborhoods, this can add up to a substantial increase.

The research mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to connections between liquor stores and crime.  A search of the Google Scholar search engine reveals many more studies.

Where are the liquor stores slated for closure?

Here’s an interactive map of Baltimore’s non-conforming liquor stores.  CPHA also has produced our own maps that show the locations of these stores in relation to property values and food deserts. As you can see, the vast majority of them are in low income African-American neighborhoods.

I noticed that my neighborhood liquor store is non-conforming. But I like having it in my community. Will this zoning change result in the loss of an important neighborhood asset?

Not necessarily.  Many council members are rezoning the minority of liquor stores viewed as amenities by their communities as commercial.  CPHA is working with the Council to ensure that all stores being rezoned are wanted by their surrounding neighborhoods.

What is this I hear about the BD-7 changes affecting wine shops?

A number of wine stores that mostly sell alcohol for off-premises consumption have BD-7 licenses  in order to allow for occasional onsite tastings.  It would be difficult for these establishments to meet the 50% requirement for onsite consumption.  The solution to this issue is for the state to issue a new category of liquor license that applies to wine shops.

Will the owners of these nonconforming stores be compensated?

No one has compensated the overwhelmingly low-income African-American residents who have had to put up with these establishments and the harm they cause.  So there will not be any compensation from the city.  Some council members have proposed compensating these store owners, but this is nothing more than an excuse to keep them open.

Isn’t this discriminatory ?

The only thing discriminatory about the situation is that these stores are overwhelmingly located in low-income African-American neighborhoods.  This legislation is not based on who owns the stores, but where the stores are located.

Since our founding in 1941, CPHA has been open to all regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.  We’ve been working for decades to make Baltimore a welcoming place for everyone.  It deeply pains us that anyone in Baltimore would feel targeted.  However, we cannot allow for a situation where 54.8% of all Baltimore City public school children live within a quarter mile of a liquor store while only 13.1% have a grocery store within the same distance, to continue.

Why doesn’t the city just go after the bad actors through reform of its liquor board?

It’s no secret that the performance of the  Board of Liquor License Commissioners has historically left a lot to be desired.  However, the previous liquor board implemented some much needed reforms.  But this progress is in danger of being thwarted by the new board.

Baltimore does need a functioning liquor board.  But we also need to reduce the sheer number of liquor stores in the city.  The city also has no control over the state run liquor board, but it does control zoning.

Aren’t many of these stores in food deserts? Could they be converted into something that serves the community in a useful manner?

We certainly think so.  The opportunities for what these stores could become are practically endless.  Some possibilities include grocery stores, hardware stores, delis, and laundromats.  The city has also offered to assist liquor store owners in converting their stores.  Unfortunately, the licensees have made it clear they’re not interested in selling something else unless the city forces them.

Baltimore City has a reputation as a difficult place to do business.  What impact would this have on the city’s business climate?

There are some who claim this provision is anti small business.  However, it is the liquor stores themselves that are anti small business.  Given the problems they cause in the communities they’re located in, it can be very difficult to attract other businesses to the surrounding areas.  If our most distressed communities are going to have any chance at revitalization, we need to reduce the number of liquor stores.

Won’t this create more vacant buildings?

It doesn’t have to. As we said earlier, there are plenty of things these stores could sell instead of alcohol.  Furthermore, the unfortunate reality is that these communities already have large numbers of vacants and having one more empty building would be the least of their problems.  Many neighborhoods would rather have another vacant than deal with the problems caused by liquor stores.

Also, this study of liquor stores in Los Angeles, suggests that they can lead to lower property values in low-income areas.  It may be the case that liquor stores themselves are a cause of vacant buildings.

Isn’t this anti-urban? It sounds like the city is trying to enforce suburban style separation of uses.

Only liquor stores are being targeted.  The proposed zoning code actually has a provision known as Neighborhood Commercial that would allow for a limited number of commercial uses in structures located in residential neighborhoods that have historically been used for non-residential purposes.

This sounds awfully paternalistic. What right does the government have to tell someone they can’t access alcoholic beverages in their neighborhood? 

There will still be plenty of businesses for residents of these communities to purchase alcohol (in fact, there will still be too many).  They will just be on commercial corridors.

Is Baltimore the only city with an overabundance of liquor stores? What efforts are underway in other cities to combat this issue?

The issue of liquor store oversaturation in low-income communities can be found nationwide.  One example of a community working to solve this problem can be seen in South Los Angeles.  Like Baltimore, South L.A. has an overabundance of liquor stores.  During the 1992 civil unrest following the acquittal of police officers for the beating of Rodney King, many liquor stores were looted or burned down.

Much of the media coverage chocked this up to tension between African-American residents and Korean shopkeepers.  While some of this is true, a major reason liquor stores were targeted was because the residents of South L.A. were angry at the amount of them located in their community.  After the unrest, the Community Coalition worked to ensure the most problematic liquor stores did not reopen.  To this day, they are continuing to reduce the number of liquor establishments in South Los Angeles.

Another example is that of the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago.  In Chicago, many of the liquor stores in low-income areas are owned by Muslim Arab Americans.  IMAN works with these shop owners to reduce the number of liquor outlets as a means of easing racial tension between Arabs and African-Americans while providing fresh fruits and vegetables in communities where these foods are not readily available.

Does this have any chance of passing?

The liquor store owners are very well organized and have close relationships with many council members.  However, CPHA and our partners worked very hard to mobilize communities across the city in support of this important legislation and the City Council appears to be getting the message.  The Council Land Use and Transportation Committee overwhelmingly supports it and we only need a small number of additional votes in the Council as a whole.

What can I do to ensure this important provision is included in the final zoning code?

The delay in passage of the zoning code makes it hard for CPHA and our partners to keep the public engaged.  Currently, the best thing those interested can do is to keep up to date on the latest news surrounding the code.  This can be done through following our Tales of Transform Baltimore blog.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

This article was written by Gregory Friedman. Click here to meet our writing team.
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