In its search for new offices in downtown Baltimore, the American Credit Indemnity Co. liked what it saw at Commerce Place, the 30-story tower nearing completion on East Baltimore Street.
The $90 million building boasts the first-class office space that the insurance company wants. But one problem is hindering a deal: the strip of show bars, peep shows and erotic book stores just down the street.
ACI, which must leave its current home on St. Paul Place by next summer, is not the only outfit turned off by the strip in the 300 and 400 blocks of E. Baltimore St. known collectively as The Block.
City boosters and some political leaders say The Block -- once one of the city's best-known attractions -- is bad for business because it draws vagrants, drugs and crime to an area that otherwise would be prime for the next phase of downtown development.
A subway station is slated to open nearby in 1994. A new municipal building already is in operation along the strip. Commerce Place is coming. And a choice development parcel is expected to open at the edge of The Block when police headquarters moves from its current location on Fayette Street.
Despite the lure of new development, a Schmoke administration-backed bill that would force bawdy businesses off The Block appears -- surprisingly to its sponsors -- to be dying in the City Council.
The six council members who represent South Baltimore have lined up against the measure, saying they fear that it will cause adult entertainment businesses from The Block to move into their districts. At least three other council members say they will oppose the measure in deference to their colleagues.
And Council President Mary Pat Clarke -- whose position puzzles the bill's sponsor, Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd -- is opposing the bill as well. She says it would not significantly improve the strip.
The 19-member council delayed action on the measure last month but is expected to vote when its summer recess ends in September. If no minds are changed, the bill will fail.
The problem with the measure, its critics say, is that it would force businesses on The Block to move to industrial areas, some of which are close to residential neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. That has prompted loud protests from residents who say the city is trying to dump The Block's problems at their doorsteps.
"We already have a prostitution problem. We have drugs," said Delores Barnes, president of Concerned Citizens for Better Brooklyn, whose neighborhood abuts industrial land. "I don't see them trying to move these places up into Ashburton and Roland Park. If they can't control the problems of these places downtown, how can they control it here?"
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke thinks those complaints can be addressed before the bill goes to a council vote.
"The legislation is not dead," Mr. Schmoke said last week. "But there needs to be more of a community education campaign. There is no way The Block would be relocated en masse in the city. Those fears are being fanned by people who want to undermine the legislation."
Large property owners and corporate interests who pushed for introduction of the bill say the community fears are unfounded since the legislation would not allow Block businesses to relocate as a unit. And they would have to be at least three blocks from residential areas, churches and schools.
Supporters also say the bill would tighten controls over show bars, which under current law are not distinguished from other forms of live entertainment and can operate legally in most commercial strips in the city. In addition, club owners would have to win liquor board approval before they could move their bars, supporters say.
Already, bars featuring live dancers can be found in many parts of the city. Zoning officials count 18 of them besides the 28 adult entertainment emporiums on The Block.
Mr. Schmoke and other supporters maintain that the bill is important to the entire city because downtown Baltimore will not reach its development potential while The Block is in business.
The Block offers a relatively small tax benefit to the city, with property tax receipts totaling less than $200,000 annually. City officials say the strip depresses nearby property values. They envision a far bigger tax take if The Block is eliminated.
In the past three years, the problems of The Block have prompted the United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. to pull 170 employees out of the Commerce Exchange Building, a low-rise office complex at 17 Commerce St., a short walk from The Block.
"Our employees were often accosted by panhandlers and homeless people," said John A. Andryszak, USF&G's vice president for government affairs. The building is only 35 percent leased -- and Mr. Andryszak said The Block is a big part of the problem.
"There is no question that part of the problem is the building's proximity to the adult entertainment center," he said.