Board delays decision on Odell's club expansion Fans, opponents crowd hearing on controversial club

August 18, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Fans and opponents of Odell's, a violence-plagued private club at 21 E. North Ave., will have to wait a week for the city zoning board to act on the club's request for a "dance hall" permit.

The board last night voted to delay its decision until 12:30 p.m. next Tuesday, despite four hours of sometimes-emotional testimony at a packed City Hall hearing attending by nearly 150 people.

And depending on the witness, the club is either a boon to the community's recreation-starved black youth, or a blight on a struggling urban neighborhood.

"We have here a club which has been around for 20 years," said state Del. Elijah E. Cummings, the lawyer representing Odell's. "It's a club that has become an institution in the African-American community in Baltimore and in the white community to some degree."

Mr. Cummings argued that Odell's, which has no liquor license and is open only on weekends, provides a place for young people to gather and associate with their friends. He said the violent incidents outside the club -- including a shooting early yesterday -- occurred despite the best efforts of his client to maintain tight security.

Six people -- including three teen-agers -- were wounded early yesterday during two shootings that police say may be connected to an argument at the club.

But that wasn't good enough for many of the club's neighbors, who pleaded with the board to reject any expanded operations, or even to shut it down.

"Odell's is not enhancing the life of the community . . . there is no respect for the residents, the police are overwhelmed," said Kevin Bosworth, who lives on East Lafayette Avenue behind the club. "We beg the board, do not permit this anymore."

Melvin Knight, representing the neighborhood community association, said, "It's very difficult to live in a neighborhood where the noise keeps you up all night until daylight, where there are gunshots coming down the alley."

The hearing was the latest round in a long-running confrontation between Odell's and area residents, who complain about violent incidents and of noisy crowds that congregate near the nightclub on weekends.

The "dance hall" permit sought by Odell's would allow it to open a second floor and expand its capacity well beyond the current limit of 425 patrons -- perhaps up to 1,000.

The club also is seeking approval for an after-hours designation that would allow it to operate past 2 a.m.

Many supporters of the permit spoke at the hearing, among them Stephanie Jones, an East Baltimore mother of three teens XTC two of them Odell's patrons.

"Once they go inside Odell's, they are not going to get shot up or stabbed up," she said. "It's just a bunch of kids there to have a good time."

Nicole Harris, 16, told the board she is at Odell's almost every weekend: "It keeps young black children out of trouble and off the streets."

And William Perry, a long-time patron of the club, told the board that the problems associated with Odell's are no different from the crime that plagues every part of the city.

"If you close Odell's, then you might as well shut down every public housing complex. . . . You might as well shut down Mondawmin," he said. "Whether Odell's is open or not, these types of problems will go on."

But police at last night's hearing warned that they would be hard-pressed to handle the additional problems posed by an expanded operation.

Maj. Frank A. Russo, commander of the Central District, said police sometimes deploy up to 50 officers in the area to cope with the crowds after Odell's closes.

A larger club could bring larger problems, he warned, saying, "there aren't enough officers in Baltimore City working that shift, if that happens."

And Lt. J. L. Hawkins Jr., who commands the midnight shift that handles the Odell's detail, said the club's patrons need to take more responsibility for their actions.

"We cannot increase the patrols any further -- we're at the limits," he said. "If they want the club to stay in business, they've got to get together."

First opened in 1976 by the late Odell Brock, the club was shut down by the federal government in 1987 after the arrest and conviction on heroin charges of then-owner Philip A. Murray.

It was purchased three years ago by Milton Tillman, who reopened it as a private dance club for teen-agers and young adults, currently operating on Friday and Sunday nights only and without a liquor permit.

In July 1991, six people, five of them teen-agers, were injured in a drive-by shooting.

Two months ago, five people received minor wounds in a shooting within 100 feet of the club.

Since last year, the city has been wrangling with the club through the zoning board and in Circuit Court.

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