Annapolis considers curbs on panhandling

Merchants, customers complain about aggressive beggars

February 08, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

With new businesses opening on West Street and major development projects in the works, the Annapolis city council is considering a measure to make the corridor safer for pedestrians -- from beggars.

Many business owners along inner West Street say there has been an increase in panhandling, and that the beggars seem more aggressive. Stories range from customers being approached while walking on the street to panhandlers entering lobbies and establishments to ask for money.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," said Brian Cahalan, owner of the 49 West Coffeehouse, Winebar and Gallery. "They've gotten really bold."

Alderman Louise Hammond has introduced an ordinance to prohibit the "coercion and intimidation of people while they are walking or driving within a public right of way." The legislation is aimed at complaints about people begging or harassing pedestrians along West Street, Hammond said.

"It's not good for business," she said. "We want people to feel safe when they walk from home or from a business to another destination."

Lt. Robert E. Beans of the Annapolis Police Department said officers have received harassment complaints from people walking along inner West Street. For the proposed ordinance to work, he said, business owners need to call police when problems arise.

"This is really a community tool, not a police tool," Beans said.

The ordinance was introduced last month and is being discussed by the council's public safety committee. It is scheduled for a public hearing at the Feb. 28 meeting.

Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, said he hasn't seen the ordinance but noted that anti-panhandling laws generally face tough challenges in court.

"The courts have held that someone has a constitutional right to ask for money," Sullivan said.

Annapolis City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke said that although his staff has not done a constitutional analysis of the legislation, he thinks it "tries to walk that fine line."

"I think this legislation tries carefully to preserve that right while enforcing the public's equal right to unobstructed use of the sidewalks and not be intimidated," he said.

`Cosmopolitan feel'

Ona Joyce, who opened an Irish pub, Sean Donlon, in December, said she supports the legislation. She referred to a recent incident during which her staff physically removed a female beggar from the establishment.

"It's not nice for your customers to be harassed by people who are homeless and drug abusers," Joyce said. "It's also a problem when our employees leave at night."

Joyce said she sees a need for the city to increase safety, especially as business continues to grow and the street takes on a more "cosmopolitan feel."

"You can't just develop in an area and not be cognizant of the problems already there," she said.

West Street, once the place to buy clothing and dine at fine restaurants, was in decline in the late 1950s as developers turned to suburban expansion. The city drafted an inner West Street revitalization plan 13 years ago, but little happened beyond the opening of the Loews Annapolis Hotel in 1990.

The recently completed Westgate Circle at West Street, Spa Road and Taylor Avenue has helped generate interest in inner West Street, which runs from there to Church Circle.

A group of West Street business owners met last month to establish a formal organization and become assume a stronger role in the development of the corridor.

$10 million renovation

Mayor Dean L. Johnson said the success of inner West Street is vital to Annapolis. "That has to be our commercial growth area in the near future," he said.

The city has plans for a $10 million renovation project to resurface inner West Street and replace its 120-year-old water lines and outdated sewer system.

"We're basically building a whole new road," Johnson said, adding that the work could begin by late summer.

Other major projects include real estate developer Ted Joyce's plan to build a 124-room hotel at 176 West St. and a 225-room hotel, theater, office buildings and apartment complex adjacent to Westgate Circle proposed by Jerome J. Parks.

The city also is considering a proposal to build a 500-space parking garage in the 100 block of West St.

To keep pace with development, Cahalan said, more police patrols will be needed to protect the area. The ordinance, he said, is a start.

"At least they are trying to do something," he said.

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