Friday, November 30, 2012

Transforming Baltimore

 Nothing is more transformative to a City than engaged, informed citizens.

Last night, I had the pleasure of witnessing the potential for change in our city as I testified at the Planning Commission’s first public hearing as part of TransForm Baltimore.  It’s our City’s effort to update and modernize our zoning code in a way that encourages growth and new development while protecting the assets and features that make Baltimore unique. 

You may wonder why a Health Commissioner is so concerned about zoning. 

Zoning codes are one of the most effective tools for promoting and protecting the public’s health.  The World Health Organization, the US Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control have all recommended use of zoning codes as a method of reducing harm in communities.  This is especially important for things such as high alcohol outlet density.

Several good public health research studies recently conducted in urban centers throughout the country have demonstrated that alcohol outlets that sell for off-premise consumption (so-called “packaged goods stores) are strongly and consistently associated with increased violent crime.  Additionally, through our own Neighborhood Health Profiles, we know that Baltimore neighborhoods with higher alcohol outlet density are generally associated with poorer health outcomes, including shorter life expectancy, higher homicide rates, and greater poverty.  Lastly, through our Neighborhood Health Initiative, we heard loud and clear from communities throughout the city that this is a major public health concern; in fact residents in over half of the council districts prioritized liquor outlet density as one of their top ten health concerns.

Violence as a public health issue is something that I feel passionate about.  Addressing this pressing health concern must include every tool that is available to us.  That’s why I am particularly in favor of the amendments which I believe will right size the distribution of alcohol outlets:

Phasing out nonconforming Class A Liquor Outlets. These stores have been “non-conforming” in residential neighborhoods for 40 years. More often than not, these are the stores where you can buy cheap liquor across a plexiglass barrier.

Clarifying the definition of BD-7 licenses, commonly known as taverns. Often, BD-7s function as modern-day “speakeasies” – you can buy liquor in the front for off-site consumption, but to get into the actual bar you have to be buzzed in. In the new code, at least 50% of the outlet’s sales and floor area must be dedicated to on-site consumption. 

Enforcing a 300-foot limitation on new liquor stores. In the proposed zoning code, new liquor stores will not be permitted within 300 feet of existing stores with the exception of downtown.  

One of the priorities within Healthy Baltimore 2015 is “Creating Health Promoting Neighborhoods.” Current liquor board regulations say that Baltimore City should have one liquor license for every 1,000 residents. Instead, Baltimore currently has more than twice what it should, based on its population.

As I said in my testimony, in order to get a comparable ratio for health promoting outlets, we would need 30 times as many grocery stores and 4 times as many parks or open spaces as we currently have.  It shouldn't be easier to walk to your nearest package goods store than it is to walk to your nearest supermarket or park.

Last night, we heard residents speak about the shorter life expectancy, higher homicide rates, and greater poverty that they’ve seen in neighborhoods with too many liquor stores and ask for an opportunity to be part of the process that attempts to right-size the number of liquor licenses in our City.

You can stay informed during this process by visiting the Planning Commission's Zoning Rewrite website at

You can also attend one of the upcoming Planning Commission hearings on Transform Baltimore:

December 13, 2012, 6pm, BCCC-Liberty Campus
January 5, 2013, 11am, Poly/Western High School
January 24, 2013, 5pm, Southeast Regional Library
February 21, 2013, 6pm, Morgan State University

Finally, we hope you'll share photos or short testimonials that show how alcohol outlets affect your neighborhood.  We are particularly interested in hearing youth opinions.  You can send your photos and stories to or to the Health Department at 1001 E Fayette Street, Baltimore MD, 21202, attn. Elizabeth Tung.

Take Care, B’More