The city zoning board is expected to decide today whether to allow two downtown nightclubs -- including one run by a businessman whose Towson operation was a factor in Baltimore County's ban on after-hours clubs -- to stay open until dawn.
The Board of Zoning and Municipal Appeals is scheduled to take up the applications of the China Room, at South and East Lombard streets, and the Lava Lounge, on Pier 4 at the Inner Harbor, both of which want to serve food and provide entertainment until 6 a.m.
Zoning officials say the China Room's proposal, which is backed by the Downtown Partnership, has the best chance of obtaining board approval. It would be Baltimore's fourth legal after-hours club. City police have raised no objections.
"This is what Baltimore needs," said John M. Giorgelli, former owner of the long-troubled Club 101 in Towson, who will operate the China Room. "To see people eating Chinese food, sitting at tall tables custom-made from China under theatrical lighting propels downtown to a new level."
Giorgelli, 33, has entered into a joint operating agreement with An Pan Lee, owner of Uncle Lee's Szechuan Restaurant, to run the China Room on Friday and Saturday nights, after the restaurant stops serving at 8 p.m. The nightclub opened 10 days ago, operating from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., serving Chinese food, sushi and alcohol under laser lights and with trendy music.
Approval by the board would allow the club to stay open until 6 a.m., though alcohol would not be served after 2 a.m.
Baltimore County officials said the city needs to be wary of Giorgelli's history in the nightclub business. County officials said his after-hours club in Towson, which opened in 1993 and closed in May last year, was the scene of brawls and was cited for zoning and liquor law violations.
County police said they responded to the club more than 700 times in the six years it was open and arrested Giorgelli 13 times on 39 charges relating to the club from 1993 and 1996, said Capt. Charles Rapp, commander of the Towson precinct. Giorgelli was not convicted of any of those charges.
"God help the city," Rapp said when he learned that Giorgelli was seeking an after-hours permit. "He is a very shrewd business person, but he just directs his energy in the wrong direction.
Rapp said Giorgelli usually cooperated with the police and "has some good ideas" that could be an "asset to the city, if he has matured."
County officials said problems at the club were so serious that legislators held up the club as an example in 1997, when the General Assembly banned bring-your-our-beer parties at after-hours clubs in Baltimore County.
When the problems continued after that law went into effect, county officials cited the club for zoning violations in 1998 and ruled that it was operating illegally. Giorgelli appealed the ruling but closed the club before a final decision was made.
"His club was unbearable," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, who pushed for the county ban on after-hours clubs.
Giorgelli, who began his nightclub career in the late 1980s, when he managed Hammerjacks in southern Baltimore, said he realizes that the problems at the Towson club stemmed from an "immature" clientele. He said he was unfairly singled out by police and county officials.
Giorgelli said he has learned his lesson from operating the Towson club. He said the China Room, which has a strict dress code, will be well-managed and will attract a more professional clientele.
"This is an opportunity to prove myself, to show the beautiful place I have built here for Baltimore," Giorgelli said.
Police and Downtown Partnership officials say they are aware of Giorgelli's problems in Towson but that after meeting with him, they are convinced that he deserves a chance to revive downtown night life.
"I certainly think night life can be used to further our goal of having a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week city," said Michele Wheeley, interim president of the Downtown Partnership. "[The China Room] plans are for a dance floor that would allow crowds to eat dinner and dance to music late at night and that is something we just don't have a lot of."
Downtown Partnership has taken no position on a second after-hours applicant, for the Lava Lounge, an upscale, trendy club at the site of the former Chart House restaurant.
A third application for an after-hours club was scheduled to be heard today by the zoning board. But Lonnie Fisher, the operator of Ultrasonic Inc., a proposed 15,000-square-foot alcohol-free dance hall in the 400 block of E. Saratoga St., said he plans to request a postponement of the hearing until he can scale back the plan.
Frank Legambi, executive secretary of the five-member zoning board, said the spate of requests for after-hours permits signifies the growing movement -- backed by tourism boosters, developers and some influential city officials -- of modeling Baltimore after New York-style, all-night entertainment.
Several hundred patrons packed the China Room Saturday. Several said they supported the club's effort to expand its hours.
"This is what we always needed here," said Rochelle Burgo, a 23-year-old graduate student who recently moved to Pittsburgh from Towson. "I now wish I never left."