Comes Under Fire from American Civil Liberties Union
By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun
July 2, 2002 -- The Cordish Co., the Baltimore-based developer credited with projects that have revitalized downtowns around the country, has been embroiled in a dispute over the dress code at its open air entertainment facility in Louisville, Kentucky that reflects a larger debate pitting control of decorum versus discrimination.
Bowing to community pressure, the Cordish Co. this week lifted part of a dress code for men that prohibited sports jerseys and baseball hats worn backward at 4th Street Live!, an entertainment venue in Louisville similar to Cordish's Power Plant Live! in downtown Baltimore. Sleeveless shirts for men remain prohibited.
Local activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky had complained the code unfairly shut out urban youth, blacks and poor people and assumed people who wore such clothing to be troublemakers. A grievance was filed with the city's human relations committee and a protest threatened if the ban wasn't lifted.
"It transcends racial lines, but it disproportionately affects African-Americans and urban youth," the Rev. Louis Coleman, a longtime civil rights activist, said of the dress code. "They want a select group to participate in their activities. This group needs some good sound courses in cultural diversity and what young people are wearing today. Cordish needs to be brought up-to-date."
Denise Bentley, a Louisville city councilwoman, wanted Cordish to replace the dress code with the "no shirts, no shoes, no service," policy that most businesses enforce.
"I have a 14-year-old son and jerseys are his wardrobe," Bentley said. "He's not a gang member."
Cordish had maintained that the policy is in force at its other entertainment developments, including in Baltimore and Houston. Since the Louisville project opened in April, about 100 of 300,000 patrons have been stopped because of the dress code, said Zed Smith, Cordish partner and director of operations. The company provided T-shirts to those stopped because of dress.
The ban was only enforced on Wednesdays through Saturdays when the area is blocked off for special events and concerts and visitors have to pass through an entry point, and only in effect where alcohol was served, Smith and city officials said.
Cordish officials said they establish dress codes to create a standard, much like nightclubs that prohibit sneakers or restaurants that require dinner jackets.
"The basis of the dress code is in no way, shape or form racially-based or designed to be exclusionary," Smith said. "It speaks more to casualness and the idea that there is a standard of dress. It implies that there is a certain level of respect for the environment. We are trying to move from a casual environment to something a little more formal."
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson praised the company's influence on his city. He believes private establishments have the right to establish a dress code as long as it doesn't exclude a group or gets enforced arbitrarily.
"In its first few weeks in business, Fourth Street Live and The Cordish Company are already making a tremendous difference in improving downtown Louisville," the mayor said in a statement released by e-mail yesterday. "They've taken a failing downtown mall and turned it into a buzzing hub of entertainment. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over this community and visitors to our city have already come to check out the excitement at this first-class venue.
"The Cordish Company has shown a willingness to listen and respond to the concerns of individuals in our community," the mayor said. "They have successfully resolved the recent concerns about the dress code, and we support both their decision and their right to demand some basic standards of attire to create a quality entertainment environment."
The Cordish Co. develops shopping centers, residential complexes and gaming and lodging facilities. It has made a name in building large-scale urban projects, including Bayou Place in Houston, Charleston Place in South Carolina and the remake of the former Capitol Centre property in Prince George's County into a Main Street-style shopping complex. Its $75 million 4th Street Live complex in Louisville was once an enclosed mall but is now a two-square block, open-air entertainment venue with such restaurants as TGI Fridays and Hard Rock Cafe.
At Baltimore's Power Plant Live!, signs to the entrance inform visitors that "proper attire is acquired." That generally means patrons must wear shirts and shoes and men are prohibited from wearing sleeveless shirts, Smith said.
Earlier this week, the Web site for Power Plant Live! described its dress code as "no excessively baggy clothes and no sports jerseys. Jerseys on game days only." But the Web site was blacked out Thursday, two days after a Cordish Co. representative spoke with a Sun reporter.
Smith said the Cordish company would continue to enforce the standards at Power Plant because so many of the restaurants and clubs there have the same standards. Smith said the dress code was based on the rules at the establishments at Power Plant.
The Have a Nice Day Cafe, for example, a Power Plant club with a disco-theme known for its 1970s and '80s music, lists an extensive dress code on its Web site and on a sign posted on the door. Clothing it prohibits include ripped or torn jeans, shorts past the knee, flip flops, work boots, yellow Timberland boots, and for men, no sandals, hats or sleeveless shirts.
Smith said they've never received any complaints that the dress code at Power Plant Live! is discriminatory.
Industry and legal experts said dress codes, especially in an age when the lines are blurring between formal and recreational wear, are frequently common and legal.
"Obviously, they're in business to make money. I can't imagine they're setting that kind of a restriction to drive people away," said C.K. Reisinger, owner of Power Strategies, an etiquette consultant in Kansas City, said of Cordish and its policies.
The Cordish developments aren't alone. Many popular nightclubs also institute dress codes.
Club One, a downtown Baltimore nightspot popular among African Americans, prohibits rugged shoes, ripped clothing, athletic wear, shorts and visors. "If you are wearing a baseball hat in the club you will be asked to leave. No excuses," its Web site says.
Legally, privately owned entities can, and do, enforce dress standards. Questions arise when dress codes are so narrow they seem to target a specific group. For instance, prohibiting dashikis or certain religious headdress might raise questions, lawyers said. Discrimination can be hard to prove in these cases, they said.
"The burden of proof for private institutions is a little higher," said A. Dwight Pettit, a renowned Baltimore civil rights attorney. "You have to be able to show racial or cultural discrimination. White kids wear jerseys as much as black kids."
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