Phasing Out The Block


The bells are tolling for The Block, Baltimore's once-famous adult entertainment district just around the corner from City Hall. Under a bill introduced by Councilman Wilbur Cunningham, adult entertainment businesses, peep shows and porno shops would be outlawed from the central business district by July, 1995. They would then be mitted only as scattered conditional uses in manufacturing districts.

This is a timely legislative initiative. As lifestyles and entertainment technologies have changed, The Block, in the 400 block East Baltimore Street, has increasingly become a seedy anachronism. What once was an entertainment oasis for traveling salesmen, sailors and bachelor party revelers seldom nowadays seems to attract any crowds at all. How its go-go bars, peep shows and smut emporiums make a profit is anybody's guess.

In recent years, traditional adult entertainment zones in many other cities have declined to the point that they have become an eyesore and embarrassment. Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas and Islip, N.Y. are only a few of the places that have successfully phased out adult entertainment districts through zoning changes and stricter enforcement of liquor laws and health codes.

These cities have established important legal precedents. Their right to phase out adult entertainment uses from certain areas has been upheld in appeals that have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So has their right to institute restrictions that would not allow adult entertainment uses next door to one another or within 1,000 feet of "a residence district, church, hospital, school, library, park, playground or day nursery," as the Cunningham bill decrees.

With a nearby Metro extension two years from completion, The Block is in the middle of a desirable redevelopment area just blocks away from an interstate highway, the Inner Harbor, the financial district and City Hall. Once the sleazy porno merchants leave, its existing buildings could easily accommodate a variety of badly needed retail shops, professional offices, restaurants and other service establishments. Because of the convenience of the area, some vacant lots might even emerge as housing for people who want to be in the middle of downtown action. What today is The Block could become Baltimore's version of South Street, a trendy and funky Philadelphia area.

The Block is gradually being squeezed out of existence. Commerce Place, a stately 30-story office high-rise costing $90 million, will soon open next door. The Cunningham bill would hasten that transformation and accelerate redevelopment. It is a step in the right direction.

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