(Screenshot from a YouTube video)

The long-faded sign proclaimed the store’s fares—liquor and lottery. On April 27, however, the establishment on the corner of North and N. Fulton avenues resembled an ants’ nest—looters swarming in and out of the dark, yawning opening, toting pilfered goods away.

Hours later—after the burial of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Sandtown-Winchester man who died from injuries sustained while in police custody—the nameless liquor store was ablaze, becoming one of the iconic images of the civil unrest in Baltimore.

Weeks later, Charm City is in rehab. But recovery for that unnamed liquor store and about 22 others—unlike the remainder of the nearly 400 businesses, including 17 other liquor stores, damaged in the uprising—will be much harder. Last month, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced those 23 liquor stores are ineligible for no-interest loans available to damaged businesses because they “nonconforming,” that is, they are not in line with a zoning ban on the sale of alcohol in residential areas.

“I have a great amount of sympathy for those stores that have been damaged, and we want them to rebuild; we want them to reopen,” Rawlings-Blake said in making the announcement. “But with all the grants and the loan programs that we have available we have a unique opportunity for these nonconforming liquor stores to convert into uses that can uplift our community.”

At the basis of the mayor’s decision are ongoing efforts to retool Baltimore’s zoning laws.

According to Laurie Feinberg, of the Department of Planning, the city’s first zoning ordinance was approved in 1923 and zoning laws were last updated in 1971. Though the zoning changes banned alcohol sales in residential neighborhoods, preventing new takeaway liquor establishments from being built, existing liquor stores were “grandfathered” in, or allowed to continue their operations.

There are about 100 such nonconforming liquor stores peppered across Baltimore, officials said, though they tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

“We have an overpopulation of liquor stores in predominantly low-income communities in Baltimore,” said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office. “Anybody that rides through portions of Baltimore can see: There’s a liquor store on every corner…. The community had complained about them for years.”

In 2008, efforts to shutter those nonconforming off-site liquor stores took flight when the Department of Planning began the process of rewriting the city’s zoning code.

“A group of public health advocates—a really quite adamant and outspoken group—brought to our attention the high concentration of liquor outlets in Baltimore and, specifically, the public health impact,” Feinberg said.

In 2012, a new zoning proposal called “TransForm Baltimore” was introduced into the City Council (Bill 12-0152). And a health impact assessment called “Zoning for a Healthy Baltimore,” which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and largely conducted by investigators from Johns Hopkins University, was consulted during the development of that plan.

“It was a relatively exhaustive process,” said Dr. Rachel Thornton, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine and a co-author of the assessment. “We were particularly interested in the health equity issues in the city. we sought to frame our work around the major health disparities in the neighborhoods.”

Thornton said, for example, they were sensitive to the fact that recommendations or solutions could have varying impacts on different neighborhoods.

An issue that stood out was the proliferation of alcohol outlets and the disparate impact on poorer communities.

“One of the things that popped out pretty consistently in the research literature, especially with regards to liquor establishments, is that both the proximity to outlets and the density of outlets are associated with increased risk of violent crimes,” Thornton said.

In a September 2013 follow-up study titled, “Neighborhood Alcohol Outlets and the Association with Violent Crime in One Mid-Atlantic City: The Implications for Zoning Policy,” lead author Jacky Jennings and others conducted an analysis of census tracts in Baltimore City from 2011 to 2012. The data included violent crimes (51,942) from 2006 to 2010, licensed alcohol outlets establishments (1,327) from 2005 to 2006, and data on neighborhood disadvantage, percent minority, percent occupancy, and drug arrests from 2005 to 2009.

In addition to finding that the city had “more than twice the number of outlets per capita as mandated by Maryland state law” (1,330 licenses compared to 630 based on population), the study also found statistically significant correlations between alcohol establishments and violent crime, mirroring findings in other urban centers.

“Each one-unit increase in the number of alcohol outlets was associated with a 2.2  increase in the count of violent crimes adjusting for neighborhood disadvantage, percent minority, percent occupancy, drug arrests, and spatial dependence,” reported the study, which was published in the National Institutes of Health’s {Urban Health Journal}. It later added, “Evidence suggests that off-premise alcohol outlets double the risk of violent crime and are specifically associated with increased homicide rates.”

In the unadjusted model, each unit increase in alcohol outlets accounted for a 1.5 percent increase in violent crime.

Partly reflecting the findings and recommendations of the Health Impact Assessment, the proposal to rewrite Baltimore’s zoning ordinance includes provisions to address the potential adverse health impacts of liquor establishments decreasing the density of alcohol outlets over a period of time.

For liquor stores to become conforming, they have to either move out of residential zones or “they have to agree to provide or perform other services in the community,” Harris said. “We have a number of programs to provide them with incentives to help them conform, so they’re more reflective of the desires the community has.

“Imagine if each of these liquor stores reopened as stores that sold fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, things that the communities needs and other essential groceries,” Rawlings-Blake said during the June 15 press conference. “The impact such a change would have, it would be dramatic on our ability to reduce and even eliminate food deserts in many of our communities across the city.”

In the meantime, the 23 nonconforming liquor stores damaged earlier this year will have to petition the state–which is also offering interest-free recovery loans of up to $35,000 without the city’s restrictions—or meet other criteria to access city-provided recovery funds.

“The mayor has said if you want to receive funds you have to get a letter of support from your City Council representative, who must agree to make a conforming liquor store,” Harris said, “and you have to get a letter of support from the community.”