Lease deal for lounge halted

Negotiations to rent city-owned building to strip club fall apart

`A strange situation'

April 12, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore city government will not be landlord to lap-dancers, after all.

Mayor Martin O'Malley gave up yesterday on unusual and difficult negotiations to lease a city-owned building near the Inner Harbor to a strip club the city is evicting to help rebuild the west side of downtown.

"This was a strange situation where the city was entering into a lease with a strip bar," O'Malley said. "The bottom line was that [the club] didn't want us as a landlord, and we didn't want [it] as a tenant."

The city's proposal to move the El Dorado Lounge from 322 W. Baltimore St. to a vacant building on Gay Street near the Holocaust Memorial had sparked protests from Jewish leaders who didn't want a club with a history of prostitution and liquor law violations to relocate near the site.

But O'Malley felt pressure to help the club move - if not to Gay Street, then somewhere else downtown - after a half-dozen elected officials, including state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, complained in October that it would be unfair to destroy one of the few black-owned businesses downtown to make room for a project to build apartments near the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The El Dorado has by far been the most difficult of the dozens of businesses that the city is moving out of the way of the $350 million redevelopment project, in part because few areas in the city are zoned for strip clubs.

After looking at several possible locations for the El Dorado, city development officials offered to sell a former cooking school building at 19-21 S. Gay St. for a discount to the politically connected family of Kenneth A. Jackson, which owns the club.

City officials said the site seemed appropriate because it was only a half-block south of The Block, which has been Baltimore's strip club district for generations.

But there was a hitch. O'Malley did not learn until City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. reported March 14 that the city could not sell the building because the property is pledged as collateral on a city-issued bond.

Since then, Zollicoffer and the attorney for the El Dorado's owners have been trying to negotiate a 13-year lease that would allow the city to rent the building to the club.

But negotiations fell apart - shortly before a planning commission meeting scheduled for today on the El Dorado's move - because the club's lawyer refused to agree to requirements in the lease that would have allowed the city to evict the club if it incurred any liquor law violations, according to Zollicoffer.

Liquor board records show that the El Dorado was cited twice in the past four years for selling alcohol to a minor. The board's files list several other violations and problems, including:

On Feb. 28, 2000, the club was fined $1,375 for allowing customers to fondle dancers.

On Nov. 2, 1999, the city police vice squad warned the club to stop allowing its strippers to perform "lap dances" on patrons.

A Jan. 12, 1999, report in the liquor board file lists a complaint of a "patron assaulted by another patron."

An Oct. 18, 1997, report complains of a female employee being punched, knocked to the floor and kicked in the face by a customer.

From 1983 to 1987, the club was cited on several occasions for "solicitation for prostitution" and for liquor law violations.

As landlord, the city didn't want to be held liable if such activity continued or if someone were hurt at the club, Zollicoffer said.

"It was imperative that the city have a contract that maintained the integrity of the city, and [the El Dorado] wasn't willing to accept that," said Tony White, the mayor's spokesman. "We reached an impasse."

Baltimore officials said the deal appeared as if it might be doomed as soon as they learned that the city would have to lease the building instead of selling it to the El Dorado.

The city has given the club a May 11 deadline to close at 322 W. Baltimore St., regardless of whether it has found a new location.

Lisa Harris Jones, attorney for Rosalie Jackson, who holds the club's liquor license, said the city hasn't worked hard enough to find a new location for the club.

"We don't intend on closing until the city properly relocates the business," Jones said. "Gay Street is our option."

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who was one of the elected officials to ask O'Malley to be fair to the Jacksons, said it was the city's error to offer the Jacksons a building that it could not sell.

"We have the responsibility to try to find them a new home," Dixon said. "But in defense of the city, we have already worked extremely hard to [find] them a new location."

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he's glad the city will not allow the strip club near the Holocaust Memorial.

"I'm pleased that the city has done the responsible thing, which is not to do anything to diminish the sanctity of the Holocaust Memorial," he said.

O'Malley still faces the sensitive matter of helping the strip club relocate.

"Wherever [the club] goes, there's going to be a group of people that's going to be unhappy," he said.

But the mayor made clear that he considers it the city's responsibility to help the El Dorado move, just as the city has done with jewelry, shoe and music shops evicted from the west-side redevelopment area.

Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

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