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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen9:27 amMay 13, 20240

Atlas Restaurant Group’s plan for a new bar on Thames Street stirs anger and fear

Lawyer for the politically influential hospitality company warns residents – including the spouse of Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman – that they could be personally sued

Above: Led by the Atlas Restaurant Group, applicants want to transfer a liquor license to 1704 Thames Street, the white building behind the tree at left. At right, the Atlas-owned Waterfront Hotel. (Fern Shen)

With their homes backing up to Fells Point’s legendary Thames Streets bars, the residents of Lancaster Street say, noise from the revelry over the years was expected and never bothered them – until the Atlas Restaurant Group moved in.

The trouble started, they say, when Atlas purchased the Waterfront Hotel at 1710 Thames, overhauled the second floor to create a larger venue for live bands and added speakers blasting music out to an open next-door lot (1706 Thames Street) where they enhanced the patio and built an outside bar.

“We have had repeated difficulty over the last two years with the noise levels from the live music at the Waterfront Hotel and the existing outdoor speakers, which reverberate through the common courtyard,” wrote Eben Hansel, a Lancaster Street resident, in a letter to the Baltimore Liquor Board.

A statement submitted by another neighbor, Jeanne Nevin, bemoaned “the noise bombarding us at all hours” from the Waterfront, which she said blended with the blare from two nearby Atlas-owned establishments, the Admiral’s Cup and The Choptank.

These letters and others were submitted to protest a proposal for yet another Atlas establishment in Fells Point on the other side of the open lot, at 1704 Thames Street.

The company wants to transfer a BD-7  liquor license to this building (most recently used as an office and apartments) and get permission for “live entertainment and outdoor table service.”

The Lancaster Street residents oppose it, alleging broken promises by Atlas and at times intolerable noise from the Waterfront and bracing for the place to become a noisy glorified beer garden.

But they’re hesitant to be quoted beyond their statements in the public docket largely because of a chilling letter several of them received from Atlas’ lawyer, Constantine J. Themelis.

“The applicant is evaluating, and strongly considering, all potential legal remedies, including but not limited to, filing a lawsuit against certain parties,” the April 18 three-pager from Themelis warns. (Atlas founder, president and CEO Alex Smith is cc’d.)

“The applicant is strongly considering all potential legal remedies”  – Atlas lawyer’s letter to Fells Point residents.

Accusing the residents of “conduct in bad faith” and making “false allegations,” Themelis demands that they withdraw their petition opposing Atlas’ application “immediately.”

The situation has left the residents nervous – strikingly so, considering the connections and standing in the community many of them arguably have to fire back.

Hansel’s wife, for instance, is Brooke Lierman, the Comptroller of the State of Maryland. (Lierman, who lives with Hansel and their two children on the historic street, declined to comment for this article, though she did sign an affidavit of opposition that is on file with the Liquor Board.)

Nevin, whose husband, Christopher G. Chute, is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University, was initially reluctant to be quoted.

Hansel declined to be interviewed for this article.

But at a public meeting, he was outspoken about who he considers to be the David and who the Goliath in this struggle.

“This is not just another Fells Point bar,” Hansel said on April 4, during a heated exchange with the applicant’s representative at a Fells Point Residents Association (FPRA) meeting.

“You’ve got common ownership of two bars. Powerful owners, powerful entities in the city, and you’ve got this big outdoor space,” he said. “This could be an absolute nightmare.”

The opponents may be retirees and well-heeled professionals, but they’ve been scrambling to navigate the byzantine rules of the Liquor Board and other city agencies involved.

Atlas Restaurant Group CEO Alex Smith and Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman.

ABOVE: Atlas Restaurant Group CEO Alex Smith and Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman. BELOW: Excerpt from the 4/18/24 letter sent by a law firm representing Thames Street Venture LLC to some opponents of its liquor license transfer request.

Excerpt from the 4/18/24 letter sent by a law firm representing Thames Street Venture LLC,

No one in Fells Point needs to be reminded about the clout of the Atlas group, which now owns and operates more than 30 bars and restaurants in Baltimore and beyond.

Or about Alex Smith’s uncle, David D. Smith, the Sinclair Broadcast Group executive chairman who recently purchased the Baltimore Sun.

Through prolific campaign contributions and aggressive charter amendment efforts – plus the use of Sinclair’s flagship station, Fox45 to boost or bash political candidates – the conservative media mogul and his politically active nephew wield increasing power in Baltimore and Annapolis.

For example, the Better Baltimore PAC, underwritten by the Smiths and other businessmen, has produced the ubiquitous TV ads that have slammed incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott and extolled former mayor Sheila Dixon in the weeks ahead of tomorrow’s Democratic primary election.

As of May 3, Alex Smith funneled $150,000 of his own money into the pro-Dixon group, with $250,000 more coming from his uncle, State Board of Elections records show.

Smith has not responded to The Brew’s email and telephone requests for comment.

Another reason for the anxiety expressed on Lancaster Street: this is not the first time Atlas has sent such letters to Fells Point residents.

In 2021, citizens who protested the renewal of The Choptank’s license, amid allegations of repeated noise violations, received a similar warning that they could be personally sued from an Atlas lawyer.

Only three of those who had formally complained about the restaurant showed up at the hearing. And when one of them, David Martz, tried to raise the issue of threats from Atlas, Chairman Albert J. Matricciani Jr. cut him off.

“That’s not before us,” Matricciani said, before the Liquor Board ruled in favor of the restaurant.

In reaction to the most recent warning by Atlas, some Lancaster Street recipients, who declined to be named, fired back with their own lawyerly letter.

“Although your client is free to express views contrary to those of our clients to the Liquor Board, it is not free to try to intimidate them and stop them from speaking out on issues of public importance,” wrote Andrew D. Freeman and Jessica P. Weber, attorneys at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, the law firm where Lierman formerly worked.

The courtyard leased for use by Atlas Restaurant Group's Waterfront Hotel and potentially the bar they are hoping to open on the other side of it . (Fern Shen)

The courtyard that Atlas wants to use for a new live entertainment venue on Thames Street. (Fern Shen)

Dubbed “the worst neighbor”

Whether the issue of alleged intimidation will be taken up by the Liquor Board at its May 23 hearing is unclear.

What is before the panel is the transfer request made by Thames Street Venture LLC, a group controlled by Alex Smith and his partner brother, Eric Smith. The group also includes The Admiral’s Cup general manager Darin Mislan and The Horse You Came in On Saloon owner Eric Mathias.

Though their application does not mention the adjacent property (1706 Thames Street), Atlas has been leasing the space from owner Charles (Duff) Hughes, who also owns the building at 1704 Thames Street.

During the pandemic, the city gave the Waterfront temporary permission to use the lot for outside dining, according to Nevin’s letter. Nearby residents agreed to go along with the decision “given that so many restaurant workers had been negatively affected by Covid.”

“This is how deterioration of our quality of life began,” she wrote.

“We regularly hear the Waterfront’s . . . indoor music events, inside our homes, late into the night, and they’ve failed to control the noise,” Lancaster Street residents Mark and Corinne Scheitler added in their letter to the board opposing the transfer.

“Every time they have a band, I hear loud bass through our recently replaced deck doors as I try to go to sleep”  – Christopher Chute.

“They initially would turn off the speakers when we requested, but then they started to assert that they had the right to play that music,” Chute wrote. “Every time they have a band, I hear loud bass through our recently replaced deck doors as I try to go to sleep.”

Saying they have recorded noise on their properties at the 75-90 decibel level, residents told The Brew they have made dozens of 311 reports. But despite visits by Liquor Board inspectors, none has resulted in citations.

“The Waterfront Hotel has been the worst neighbor I have ever had the displeasure of having to interact with,” declared Michael J. Mulshine, whose letter recounts alleged trespassing, destruction of property and other acts by the establishment, which is located opposite his home.

Nevin acknowledged that Atlas has spent a lot of money enhancing the building, including efforts at soundproofing, but that the measures haven’t worked.

“They’re not listening to what we’re telling them about the noise,” she told The Brew today. “Last night, the speakers were blasting music out there again, even though nobody was out there. We had to make another 311 call.”

Chute said the “Don’t Eat Atlas” sticker on a Lancaster Street utility pole (see below) wasn’t put there by him or his neighbors.

Initially open to Atlas’ descriptions of a venue offering “a nice dining experience,” he said residents have seen enough, including at a St. Patrick’s Day-related gathering, to fear a different future for the spot entirely.

“I can handle the sound of clinking plates and conversation,” he said. “What we got was a loud, drunken crowd shouting and hooting and doing serious drinking.”

Lancaster Street where homes feature historic plaques and roses and a lamp post sports an anti-Atlas sticker. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Historic Lancaster Street features blooming roses, commemorative plaques and a lamp post with an anti-Atlas sticker. BELOW: The outdoor bar at 1706 Thames Street, visible beyond the three trees, from a Lancaster Street house. Facing it, on the wall of 1710 Thames Street, are a set of speakers. (Fern Shen)

From a neighbor's house, visible beyond the three trees, the outdoor bar at 1706 Thames Street. (Fern Shen)

“Upscale experience”

Defending the project, Thames Street Venture’s lawyer said in a letter to the board that the group “has invested over $750,000 to convert a vacant lot into a beautiful courtyard to be part of yet another Atlas-managed upscale dining experience.”

The establishment will “attract commerce, provide private security to the surrounding area and create new job opportunities,” Anastasia Thomas Nardangeli wrote, attaching affidavits and letters of support for the transfer from local businesses like the Sagamore Pendry and The Daily Grind.

“I am so impressed with the investment time after time that this group has taken on and how they restore buildings vs knock them down,” wrote Zelda Zen owner Beth Hawks. “I’m looking forward to a business in a building that had been dormant for many, many years.”

Map in the docket from the Liquor Board showing 1704 Thames (where the license transfer is sought) and 1710 Thames, The Waterfront Hotel.

A Liquor Board map in the docket shows 1704 Thames (where the license transfer is sought) and 1710 Thames Street. The open lot between them is 1706 Thames Street.

Another letter from the Atlas Group’s lawyer to the Liquor Board focuses on a procedural matter – namely, residents’ failure to obtain enough signed notarized affidavits of opposition to meet the Liquor Board’s threshold for the transfer to be denied outright. (They submitted 19 of these affidavits last week.)

Under board rules, those who object must show opposition from more than 50% of the property owners within 200 feet of the address in question. If they can’t, the next step is a hearing on the merits.

(The May 23 hearing may be dominated by each side’s challenge of the other’s affidavits under the myriad provisions of the 50% rule. Also by arguments over the residents’ request to postpone an earlier hearing, which Atlas denounces as “a delaying tactic” and which residents say was a sincere effort hampered by short notice.)

Asked about the complaints of loud noise from the Waterfront, Darin Mislan, general manager of The Admiral’s Cup, told The Brew that excessive levels have never been corroborated by the city, despite residents making complaints “every weekend.”

“They come out and have decibel readers, but we have zero violations,” he said.

Questioned about noise levels from the lot at a February 2022 FPRA meeting, Smith said that Atlas was “not looking to create a party-type atmosphere,” but if other establishments have outdoor speakers, his venues should be able to as well.

“There’s 27 restaurants and bars all playing music outside on Friday and Saturday nights,” he asserted.

Ever Louder Music

FPRA president Kate Simms considers the arms race over who has the loudest music to be part of the problem.

“Speakers outside of businesses keep popping up,” she said. “Owners say, ‘This place has them, so why can’t I?’ It’s a losing battle.”

Since people started gathering and drinking outside during the pandemic, Fells Point has gotten much noisier, she said.

“100% it has gotten way, way louder. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I can say that,” she told The Brew.

Simms also believes Atlas has made working through that problem more difficult by “breaking promises about noise.”

The opponents, for example, have a January 2022 memo from a former FPRA officer recounting Smith’s assurances that the Waterfront Hotel “will have no bar in the courtyard” and “will not put speakers up.”

She sees Atlas’ confrontational tactics as counterproductive as well.

“I got one of those letters when we protested the Choptank’s speakers,” noted Simms, who said she is trying, with the help of the Community Law Center, to craft a memorandum of understanding with Thames Street Venture that could protect the neighborhood’s unique character as both a residential district and entertainment destination.

“It gets to me that you can’t collaborate with your neighbors if you disagree, and then work things out,” she said. “It’s frustrating and disheartening. You feel like you have no voice.”

The Waterfront Hotel owned by Atlas with (at left) 1706 Thames Street, where the restaurant group seeks a liquor license transfer. (Fern Shen)

Built in 1771, the Waterfront Hotel is now owned by the Atlas Restaurant Group. At left is 1704 Thames Street, where an LLC led by Atlas seeks a liquor license transfer. (Fern Shen)

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