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Firm's plans would take another chip off The Block Alex. Brown presses for parking garage, removal of 8 buildings


At day's end, when Dana S. Cooksey leaves work at Alex. Brown Inc., the downtown investment firm, she walks four blocks east to get her car in the parking garage known to many as the "porno lot."

The garage is so named because as the firm's employees make their way from their office on North Calvert and Fayette streets, they must walk through The Block, the city's eroding zone of adult entertainment on East Baltimore Street.

But soon when Alex. Brown builds a 375-space garage on East Baltimore Street across from its new headquarters at Commerce Place, Ms. Cooksey can say goodbye to her walks through The Block. And Block businesses will bid farewell to yet another chunk of the once venerable city showpiece, eight businesses on its western edge.

In the past 10 years The Block has taken several hits that have left it smaller. It once was four blocks long; now it is confined to one. Fewer people are championing its reasons for staying, while more people believe that, in these tough economic times, the land that these businesses occupy is valuable.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said that he wants to rid the city of the area. His long-range plans for downtown development show no place for The Block. The Police Department has been active in the area, most notably in a highly publicized but questionably effective raid in early 1994.

In December, the City Council voted to further restrict the area. An ordinance gave owners three years to get rid of neon lights posters, photographs, sketches, and signs that depict adult entertainment. It also set procedures for suspending or revoking a club's license if prostitution or illegal drugs were found.

Already reduced to a shadow of its former gaudy self, the notorious area of bars, sex showcases and erotic book and video stores now braces for yet another assault. This time it's big business, specifically Alex. Brown.

Company officials have been playing hardball with the city on to get the garage exactly where the company wants, the 300 block of E. Baltimore St.

At a planning commission meeting Oct. 19, Block business owners and historic preservationists who wanted to save the eight buildings were beaten when company officials uttered three magic words: We will leave.

Apparently, that was all it took. The commission gave the firm its blessing, and City Council likely will do the same when the proposal comes to a vote in November.

The Baltimore Development Corp. would pay owners for their buildings and pay them to relocate.

The garage would provide parking for the planned consolidation of 800 employees, now dispersed among eight downtown office buildings, into Commerce Place on the south side of the 300 block of E. Baltimore St.

Putting the garage on the empty lot across the street -- a place that would have quieted the opposition -- would not have had the desired effect. Alex. Brown wanted the Block businesses out.

"Commerce Place was a beautiful building not positioned in the absolute best part of the city. We will continue to try and encourage the city to clean up The Block," said Mayo A. Shattuck III, the president of Alex. Brown.

Company officials said that safety was more important than staying in Baltimore. They wanted to insure that employees, particularly females, would feel safe working out of Commerce Place.

Jennifer E. Cooper also parks at the garage that employees call the "porno lot." But she says that walking through The Block on the way to her Alex. Brown office doesn't make her feel unsafe. The biggest plus for the new garage is convenience.

"It's not a big deal to walk through there. I'm not bothered, and I'm not harassed," said Mrs. Cooper, a training director who has walked the path for two years.

Ms. Cooksey, who was been a marketing associate since May, said that she walks through The Block each day without giving much thought to its reputation. The sunlight gives her confidence, she said.

But as winter approaches and the sun sets earlier, Ms. Cooksey's self-assurance lags a little. "I have looked out my window and thought twice about working late now with the days getting shorter," she said.

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