Downtown Plan Faces A Sobering Challenge

June 30, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Two ragged men sleep in the hot afternoon sun across from the Cross Street Market. One sprawls on the sidewalk, grizzled cheek to the pavement, dead to the world. The other dozes fitfully as he sits slumped on a low brick wall. Between them lie two empty pints of Thunderbird wine.

It's not a pretty sight, and such scenes don't fit into the "vision" outlined recently in a report to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on a "Strategy for the Progressive Development of Downtown."

That report, which addresses a wide variety of issues facing downtown Baltimore over the next 20 years, received ample publicity for such suggestions as razing part of the Jones Falls Expressway and making Charles Street two-way. Less well-noticed were a number of other sections, one of which deals directly with the problem of street alcoholics.

"Limit the hours of liquor store operation, create minimum stor sizes, strengthen loitering prohibitions and prevent the sale of miniatures and chemical wine," the report advises in a section on "downtown livability."

The recommendations on alcoholic beverages arise from general disgust with a perceived rise in the level of panhandling, litter and public drunkenness, according to members of an advisory committee that helped draft the report.

Residents tell of feeling like prisoners in their homes, of being threatened by ragged men huddled on their doorsteps. Business owners complain that fear of vagrants keeps customers away from their stores.

Poke your head into the walkway behind the stores in the first block of East Cross Street and it immediately becomes apparent why city residents and business owners are upset about drunken vagrancy.

Amid the piles of trash, reeking of urine, are dozens of empty bottles, many still in their brown paper bags. Thunderbird is clearly the favorite wine here, but MD 20/20 (known as "Mad Dog") and Richard's Wild Irish Rose are also popular. Also well represented are 100-milliliter "shorties" of gin and "half-pints" (actually 200 milliliters) of rum.

The neighborhood's problem with drunken vagrancy is obvious but it is less clear how the report's suggestions would bring relief. Cross Street lies several blocks outside downtown, the only area within the scope of the report. Asked about a possible migration of vagrants to other neighborhoods to escape a downtown ban, several committee members said they would support citywide restrictions.

One person who is convinced that a downtown ban on Thunderbird and similar wines wouldn't deter street alcoholics is Willie Gaines, 35, a homeless man who inhabits downtown and describes himself as "a thoroughbred wino."

"You take all that wine from downtown, those m------------ just going to go somewhere else," he said, naming Greenmount Avenue, Old Town Mall and Pimlico as places vagrants would go to buy cheap wine.

How far to extend any ban is only one of a number of tricky questions raised by the report's recommendations: How do you determine which sizes of bottles to ban? Which wines would be prohibited? How far can you go in restricting sales to vagrant alcoholics without infringing on the rights of responsible drinkers? And would a ban work?

In cities and towns where similar curbs have been tried, report have been mixed.

Portland, Ore., instituted a ban on sales of cheap, fortified wine in Burnside/Old Town, site of the city's Skid Row, in the mid-1980s.

Dan Steffey, Portland's director of community development, said the ban eased problems for Old Town businesses but "didn't cause people to stop drinking; it just caused it to spread out."

However, Rob DeGraff, field services director for a downtown Portland business organization, said the ban was having a positive effect on downtown development. Vagrant alcoholics still get drunk on beer and less potent wine, he said, but they don't get drunk as quickly and are less likely to sleep on the sidewalks.

"They don't seem to have the same impact on the public and the public's right of way," he said. The program was successful enough that the city has designated a second "alcohol-impact" zone where the ban will be introduced, he said.

In Montgomery County, Gaithersburg city officials launched a campaign last year to persuade retailers to voluntarily refrain from selling the four most popular cheap, fortified wines -- Thunderbird, MD 20/20, Richard's and Night Train.

Mayor Ed Bohrer said 10 of the 11 private retailers in the city had agreed not to sell the products, as did Montgomery's county-owned liquor outlets.

Even though the ban was partly undermined when some retailers began to sell Cisco, a similar product, the program "has really accomplished what we set out to do," the mayor said. He said it had helped alleviate the problem of public drunkenness in the town center with no noticeable spread to other neighborhoods.

In the liquor industry, the reaction to the proposal was strongly negative, but some Baltimore retailers indicated they could support certain modest restrictions.

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