Lounge plan poses problems

Property: There are better ways to use the Gay Street building, especially as city development continues.


March 19, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It's easy to find moral reasons to object to the O'Malley administration's plan to lease a city-owned property near the Inner Harbor to the El Dorado Lounge strip club. The city shouldn't be the landlord for such a business.

But even if the proposed tenant were the most reputable enterprise around, there is a basic flaw with the idea of the city relinquishing control of the former Baltimore International College property at 19-21 S. Gay St.

Used for many years as the headquarters and teaching restaurant for a culinary college that outgrew the location, the now-vacant property is one of the most valuable development parcels the city owns. The land is two blocks from the Inner Harbor, two blocks from City Hall, one block from the expanded police headquarters and one block from the entertainment district emerging along Market Place.

The land is also smack in the middle of the area where downtown development is headed. Office towers are planned for the 400, 500 and 700 blocks of East Pratt Street. The Cordish Co. has set May 5 as the grand-opening date for its $30 million Power Plant Live! development at 34 Market Place. The Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture will rise at Pratt and President streets.

Given so much surrounding activity, the best and highest use for the Gay Street property is not to retain the existing building, even though it could be recycled. The best use would be to tear it down to make way for a large-scale commercial development containing parking, shops and a high-rise office tower with harbor views. Such a development could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in property taxes. It would be a bridge between the Inner Harbor and the City Hall municipal district to the north.

Baltimore's real estate market may not be ready for such an ambitious development project on Gay Street today or tomorrow. But if only a fraction of the development that is proposed nearby actually materializes, it won't be long. The city should be in a position to take advantage of its potential when it does. But it won't be able to do that if it leases the building to a tenant just as the area is about to take off, and that is the problem with the idea of renting it to the El Dorado.

The key to capitalizing on the value of the Gay Street property is to make it part of a larger development parcel, one that could accommodate a high-rise. That could be done by combining it with other properties near the former culinary college. A logical site would be one bounded by Gay Street on the west, Baltimore Street on the north, Frederick Street on the east and Water Street on the west. Such a location has the potential today that the site of the Deutsches Bank Alex. Brown tower had 10 years ago.

Private developers have tried to assemble this prime parcel, without success. The city-owned land has always been a problem because it wasn't for sale to the private sector. There have been other holdouts as well.

The city, however, has the ability to assemble a development site through the power of eminent domain. That's what gives it the authority to displace the El Dorado from its home at 322 E. Baltimore St.

If the city assembled a sizable parcel near the southeast corner of Gay and Baltimore streets, it would be ready to seek competitive bids when the time is right. That's how it got developers for many of the buildings downtown, including the Gallery at Harborplace and the Inner Harbor Center. Because it already owns the culinary college property, the city has a head start. By leasing the culinary college building to any tenant right now, however, the city would be hurting its ability to offer a larger parcel later.

Another obstacle to assembling a large development parcel at Gay and Baltimore streets is a plan by a BGE Corp. affiliate, Comfort Link, to construct a $13 million chilled water plant on a city-owned parking lot at that intersection. City officials last year awarded development rights to Comfort Link for that project, effectively reducing the amount of land still available for redevelopment. That makes the culinary college property all the more critical to any assemblage.

City redevelopment officials have been working for months to find a new home for the El Dorado club, to make way for a large development on Baltimore's west side. Mayor Martin O'Malley argues that the city's choices are limited when it comes to relocating a strip club because of city zoning law and that the Gay Street property represents one of its few options.

The problem with the mayor's rationalization is that even though moving the strip club to Gay Street may help the city solve a pressing problem, it makes it difficult for the city to accomplish an more important objective in the future. Ultimately, it is counterproductive.

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