Night life focus of bill

Proposal aims to foster live entertainment in Baltimore

July 21, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore's night scene, from dance clubs and karaoke bars to stand-up comedy and poetry slams, could get a boost under a bill expected to be introduced today in the City Council.

The proposal, sponsored by City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, would ease zoning restrictions on restaurants and taverns offering live entertainment. Instead, the bill would create a five-member board that would license the businesses.

Rawlings-Blake, who has long championed the city's entertainment sector, said she hopes the measure will encourage restaurants and taverns to offer customers something more than drinking games - but also protect residents who live near bars.

"One of the ways that we can really be competitive is to create a city where people want to live," said Rawlings-Blake. "There's an economic component to enhancing our arts, entertainment and dining in the city."

The proposal, which a Rawlings-Blake aide said is modeled after similar ordinances in San Francisco and Seattle, would remove restrictions that prohibit existing restaurants and taverns from offering live entertainment in some zoning districts.

In exchange, the city would create a five-member board that would grant annual licenses to businesses such as dance clubs, magic bars and taverns that offer live music. Before granting a license, the board would consider the type of entertainment, its volume and the establishment's plan for parking and traffic.

"I'm all for it," said Ken Horsman, owner of Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge in Federal Hill, where patrons can watch magic shows as they drink. "The city gets thousands of tourists, and we need to offer them more than just liquor and food."

But some neighborhood leaders said they are wary of removing the more stringent zoning requirements for live entertainment. Gerald Majer, crime and land-use committee chair of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, said city boards tend to favor businesses over residents.

The neighborhood group is currently engaged in a dispute over live entertainment with the former Timothy Dean Bistro, a well-known restaurant that reopened last month as T.D. Lounge, a jazz club that stays open until 2 a.m.

"This bill needs to be really, really carefully worked out," Majer said. "Potentially what we're doing is politicizing a zoning use. We're making it a political matter."

Both Majer and Horsman said they have not had an opportunity to see the details of Rawlings-Blake's proposal.

Rawlings-Blake said that the measure would give the city greater power to regulate such businesses because it would have broad authority to grant - and revoke - licenses. If 10 or more residents sent written objections about a particular applicant, a mediation session would be arranged. If that proved unsuccessful, the board would hold a hearing.

An office of hospitality services would also be created as part of the mayor's office. That office would coordinate police, fire, health and other city departments and act as the initial mediator between communities and the businesses.

The five-member board would include two members appointed by the mayor, the City Council president, one member of the council and the director of hospitality services, who would also be appointed by the mayor.

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said that the administration is familiar with the bill but the mayor will need to study it further before taking a position.

Last year, the City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Rawlings-Blake that created a task force to study ways to improve Baltimore's night life. Part of that committee's recommendation was to create the board and license businesses providing live entertainment.

The legislation, which is expected to receive hearings later this year, would not affect existing regulations for adult entertainment.

Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, said the key to making such a measure successful is balancing the concerns of the community with the desire to make the city a more vibrant place to live.

"The partnership is generally in favor of encouraging more live entertainment," Evitts said. "Though downtown is increasingly a residential neighborhood, it's a neighborhood where people expect activity."

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