As neighborhood takes off, strip bar digs in

Upper Fells Point: Politicians want an end to the dancing

owners say the strippers will stay till the price and perks are right.

September 25, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Desperation drove the two politicians to pose an unusual question to a Baltimore strip club owner: What would it take for Chubbies Club to end its adult entertainment in steadily gentrifying Upper Fells Point?

The response was "ridiculous," recalls Del. Peter A. Hammen. Co-owner Brian Shulman's demands included the right to buy a prized gambling license should Maryland approve slots, a condition so outrageous it was beyond consideration.

But the fact that the inquiry was even made by Hammen and City Council candidate Jim Kraft, as would-be middlemen, shows the conflict between Chubbies and newcomers moving in around the corner club on Eastern Avenue.

Once solidly blue-collar, the area has seen an influx of professionals paying $300,000 or more for rowhouses blocks from the water. As trendy Fells Point, Canton and Butchers Hill converge from different directions, new arrivals are pushing up property values and pulling off Formstone.

The club's critics say Chubbies' bad management has added to the ire of neighbors, both new and old, but regardless of how it's run, the curtain should fall on nude dancing there.

"If you paid $300,000 for a house, would you want a strip joint next door?" said Kraft, a Democrat who hopes to win the 1st District council seat Nov. 2. "Neighborhoods change, and that is part of the revitalization of the city. What was acceptable yesterday is not today."

Kraft, Hammen and a top city liquor board official say although exotic dancing at the corner predates most of the well-heeled arrivals, city law should be amended so that Chubbies - along with a handful of other strip clubs near homes - could move to an industrial area.

Adult entertainment licenses are tied to their location. With only 36 such licenses in the city, and no more being issued, owners like Shulman know they have a valuable commodity worth perhaps seven figures. That is why Shulman demanded so much to retire his license.

"You have to provide some wiggle room for them to move somewhere else," said Nathan C. Irby Jr., executive secretary of the Baltimore liquor board, which regulates strip clubs.

"I don't believe [Chubbies] can coexist just because the neighborhood is rapidly changing, for the better," Irby said.

Chubbies' owners, who say they try to be good neighbors, soon plan to add a new wrinkle to the situation by swapping one stage for another. Shulman and co-owner Andrew Alley are buying the adult entertainment license at Club Atlantis on the Fallsway, near the state prison, to open an offshoot of a New York-based strip club, Scores.

The purchase of the new license requires Shulman and Alley to sell their Chubbies license because no one can own more than one. On Oct. 14 they expect to auction the Chubbies license, the business, the strip club building and an adjacent building at Eastern Avenue and South Washington Street. They will also sell the Club Atlantis name.

Just last month, Alley told the liquor board that Shulman's brother and another man would buy Chubbies, but that changed. "It's been very rapidly moving," Alley said.

Residents hope a new owner would see the chance to make more money, and mend ties with neighbors, by remaking the property as high-end housing. And being able to move the strip club license to another location could be the catalyst for a makeover of the building that's now Chubbies.

"We're trying to build a neighborhood, and this kind of business does nothing toward that," said Donna Zebe, an officer with the Mid-Point Community Association. "This kind of business brings a neighborhood down."

The neighborhood once was home to stevedores and factory workers. There are some old-timers left, and Ostrowski's sausage is still open for business.

But change is abundant. The Latino population is growing east along Eastern from Broadway. And yuppies are arriving, often as two-income couples with deep pockets.

On South Washington, a block from Chubbies, a house sold last year for $385,000. On Chapel Street, where Zebe, an executive secretary, paid $57,000 for a small rowhouse 15 years ago, a 10-foot-wide house similar to hers got $198,000.

Long before that trend began, women were doing striptease inside 2000 Eastern Ave. Adult entertainment began there in 1985. But back when it was called Boots, Zebe said, neighbors scarcely noticed. Often the place appeared to be closed.

Since its re-emergence as Chubbies early last year after an expensive overhaul, problems have surfaced, she said. Shulman and Alley redid the facade, but she and others say there have been fights outside, sexual activity in the alley and the crash of bottles landing in the trash at night.

Zebe said she has received e-mails from harried neighbors. "It's 11:30 Saturday night," Gregory Weil wrote in July. "I lie in bed and without warning, I am frightened by the sound of glass on metal."

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