A Baltimore judge, responding to complaints of increasing violence near the popular Odell's dance club, suggested yesterday that the North Avenue night spot should be closed this weekend while awaiting word on its pending zoning permit.
Well, as luck would have it, the club just happened to be closing Sunday for renovations.
So said Odell's lawyer Elijah E. Cummings -- after spending nearly half an hour persuading the club's owner to go along with Judge Ellen L. Hollander's suggestion.
"You want her to order you to close?" Mr. Cummings said to Odell's owner Milton Tillman, his voice echoing in a marble hallway in the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. "Ninety percent of the problems are on Sunday nights. You know that and I know that."
Minutes later, Mr. Cummings stood before the judge and said: "My client had decided about a week and a half ago to be closed on Sunday to make some changes to the building."
Judge Hollander said the timing was indeed fortuitous.
At issue yesterday was the city's bid to back out of a June 29 agreement allowing Odell's to stay open pending a zoning board decision on the club's request for a "dance hall" permit.
The agreement, which required Odell's to join other local merchants in hiring off-duty police to patrol the area and to limit its patrons to club members only, was reached after the city went to court to shut down Odell's. The city was prompted by a recent string of crimes near the club and complaints about patrons who crowd the neighborhood streets.
But now the city wants out of the agreement because, as a lawyer for the city explained, the violence around the club is worse than ever.
Defenders describe the private club, in operation since the 1970s, as a boon to the community's recreation-starved black youths. Odell's offers only punch and cookies to its patrons, many of whom are in their late teens and early 20s. The club, at 21 E. North Ave., is open only on weekend nights.
In a letter contained in court files, Edward Smith Jr., another lawyer for Odell's, says inept police are the problem and accuses the city of trying to "economically 'lynch' a minority businessman." Mr. Smith also suggests the zoning board will deny the club's permit "due to some political considerations."
During an emotional zoning board hearing Monday, Mr. Cummings -- who is also a state delegate -- said the violent incidents outside the club -- including two shootings early Monday that left six wounded -- occurred despite the best efforts his client to maintain tight security.
After a four-hour hearing, the zoning board voted to delay its decision until next Tuesday.
Yesterday in Circuit Court, Mr. Cummings asked the judge to postpone the hearing on the agreement with the city until after the zoning board makes its decision. Any action on the city's renewed effort to close the club could "prejudice" the zoning board in deciding a "very close case," he said.
Sandra R. Gutman, a lawyer for the city, told the judge: "We don't want to summarily close this business, but the violence has been escalating, and there is a public safety factor that has to be addressed.
"Each weekend for the past three weekends there has been some violence as a result of Odell's," Ms. Gutman told the court. "I don't want to wait until someone gets killed before we do something."
Judge Hollander asked if Odell's would be willing to close this weekend as a good faith gesture.
"If we did that, Your Honor, we would do it voluntarily, and I would not want to talk about it in this courtroom," said Mr. Cummings, who had earlier noted a reporter's presence in discussing the possible implications of publicity on the zoning board's decision.
The lawyers then met in the judge's chambers, with Mr. Cummings emerging at least twice to discuss the negotiations with Mr. Tillman.
When everyone returned to the courtroom, Mr. Cummings invited the judge to stop by the club on Sunday. "We're going to have a little painting party," he said.
The judge scheduled the court hearing to resume next Wednesday.
Afterward, Mr. Cummings maintained that the plans had been made 10 days ago to renovate the club.