Can Mo’s Seafood and Little Italy coexist?

Published on: November 24, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 28, 2022 7:31 AM EST

Under a proposed community agreement ordered by Baltimore’s liquor board and drafted in November, Mo’s Seafood In Little Italy would need to upgrade its security cameras, install extra lighting and increase general surveillance around the restaurant.

Residents also asked the restaurant on President Street to share all security footage periodically and daily security logs as part of the agreement, formally known as a memorandum of understanding. The community asked for the agreement to address tensions between them and the business, particularly around safety concerns. These concerns escalated after a shooting in March that left one person dead.

But Moe’s rejected that agreement last week, after six months of negotiation and less than three weeks shy of the Dec. 5 deadline imposed by the Board of Liquor License Commissioners. The memorandum of understanding would be attached to Mo’s Seafood’s Class B liquor license, which allows the restaurant to serve beer, wine and liquor from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.

The Little Italy Neighborhood Association, Little Italy Community Organization and Little Italy Business Association — the community groups representing residents – are part of an apparent increase in these types of agreements between communities and businesses as a negotiation tactic, likely because they are more aware that it’s an option. Now, whether the restaurant and neighborhood can coexist harmoniously is up in the air.

Mo’s Seafood representatives were not satisfied with the agreement, their attorney Melvin Kodenski said in an email to the community. The email didn’t specify what Mo’s Seafood didn’t like, only that they had consulted with other businesses and wanted to “take a crack” at developing their own proposal.

Residents said they were caught off guard.

“We were quite surprised … when [Mo’s Seafood] rejected the agreement completely,” said Dan Sutherland-Weiser, president of the Little Italy Neighborhood Association.

The liquor board ordered the community agreement after Little Italy residents protested the renewal of Mo’s Seafood license at a meeting in April, after the March shooting and because of what they claimed was “a pattern of illegal activity” around the business.

The board said then there was no sufficient evidence to deny renewal, and instead asked for the agreement. Residents and city officials said there were months of negotiations that were “slow, but respectful” and “cordial.” Contention revolved around the sharing of footage and security logs.

Moe’s attorney Kodenski declined to comment. Mo’s Seafood’s general manager did not respond for requests for comment.

Kodenski said in the email to the neighborhood groups that he would let Mo’s know that he would need the new proposal “very quickly.”

“I will wait and see when I receive it,” he wrote.

A representative from at least one business group said that establishments sometimes worry about these agreements being too restrictive.

José Rivas, a member and former president of Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has seen instances when community members wanted to impose too many restrictions on a business, to the point it could hurt profits, he said.

“There’s gotta be a line between being a good neighbor and working together and having freedom of enterprise,” he said.

The key is finding common ground, Rivas said, with a City Councilmember present during negotiations. The end product should reflect whatever is best for the community as a whole. Businesses can be assets to neighborhoods, Rivas added, helping increase the value of property for homeowners.

In cases of dispute surrounding illegal activity and crime, Rivas said businesses and residents should advocate for the police to increase patrolling of the streets or install better cameras and lighting. When illegal activity happens inside the business — then, the owner should be held accountable.

On average, negotiations for these type of agreements take four to six weeks, officials for the liquor board said.

“It’s not fair to all the people that sat around all those times,” Gia Blatterman, president of the Little Italy Community Organization, said. “All the people took time out of their lives at that time.”

The Baltimore Police Department declined to comment about crime around Mo’s Seafood and whether the business is an area of concern for safety.

Calls for service records indicate that there has been an increase in calls near the restaurant, but there are few written incident reports that give specifics. The records show 62 calls for services in 2021, with only eight reports written and most of the cases categorized as not needing police service or having no “known disposition.” As of Nov. 2 of this year, there have been at least 116 calls for service with 14 incident reports, 49 incidents that had unknown disposition, and 19 that didn’t need police service.

Zeke Cohen, the City Councilmember who represents the district, mediated negotiations between residents and Mo’s, attending meetings along with officials from the liquor board, the Baltimore Police Department and the Department of Transportation.

“After multiple rounds of negotiation, we had a draft that the parties had verbally agreed to, with the caveat of maybe a few minor tweaks,” Cohen said. “But to have Mo’s then completely walk away and suggest that we would start over, felt extremely disrespectful to all the time that went into this.”

What does the latest draft of the memorandum propose?

Under the community’s agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Banner, Mo’s Seafood would have security officers on-site until 30 minutes after closing. The officers would also be easily identifiable and report any possible crimes in the vicinity, or “within normal eyesight, including, but not limited to Stiles Street and Slemmers Alley.”

Residents also asked the restaurant to set up cameras recording Mo’s entrance and the immediate vicinity, including the parking lot and President Street. The cameras would have to retain video footage for at least 15 days.

Mo’s Seafood would also have to keep daily security logs, sharing them via email weekly, and including names of the security officers on duty and any reported issues, including loitering, crowds, gambling, dice games, loud noise, disruptive or dangerous behavior, underage drinking and vehicles stopped illegally. The restaurant has shared similar records for the past couple of months, though it does not specify what issues an officer on duty has observed.

Community members are also pushing for the restaurant to check IDs of anyone who orders alcohol and looks younger than 35, using ID scanners and keeping logs. Both the daily security and the scanner logs would be available to the city police under the agreement. Residents also asked for lighting to “illuminate all four sides of Mo’s and the parking lot.”

If the agreement is signed, it will remain in effect “as long as the liquor license is assigned to” Mohammad Manochen, Mo’s owner. It would be a binding document in which the community organizations would have the right to “seek enforcement,” including in court, according to the document.

Many neighborhood associations have memorandums of understanding with new licensed establishments on how to be a “good neighbor,” meaning they should run their establishments “in a way that promotes the peace, quiet, safety, and general welfare of the surrounding community.”

The licensees can object or file an appeal against any restrictions the board imposes that they find unreasonable. Conditions can be incorporated to the extent that they are enforceable by law, and if any privacy or constitutional concerns are raised, the board will likely not overstep.

“The only class of license that is compelled by law to have surveillance camera footage be accessible on demand by the liquor board and the BPD are packaged goods license,” Nicholas Blendy, deputy executive secretary for the board, said. “No other class of license is required to do that by law.”

What happens if no agreement is signed?

At the April hearing, liquor board Chairman Albert Matricciani said the board would “see what [they] could do” if an agreement couldn’t be worked out.

“But I don’t wanna hear that it can’t be done,” Matricciani said.

Board Commissioner Aaron Greenfield added that there were “significant issues” between the community and the business.

“If both sides don’t operate here in good faith and they come back before us … there could be some real issues,” Greenfield said.

At an October meeting, when Mo’s legal representation was responding to an underage drinking violation, a city official said the business and the neighborhood were making progress and participating in “good faith.”

“We are working with them,” Kodenski, the attorney for Mo’s, said at the time. “We’re closing the gap.”

After Kodenski notified the community that Mo’s had rejected their agreement, Cohen said Mo’s should finish the agreement in a collaborative manner. While the board gave them until Dec. 5 to work things out, that could change.

“This was an opportunity for real partnership and trust building between a business and our community,” Cohen said. “And right now that trust has been violated.”

Sutherland-Weiser said that Little Italy is pro-business, pro-resident and pro-community, and wants to work with Mo’s.

“To us, the best scenario is having the residents and the businesses work together in concert,” Sutherland-Weiser said. “Because that’s better for all of us.”