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D.C. City Council amends, passes Graham club relocation bill

Washington D.C.- The D.C. City Council voted 9 to 4 Tuesday to give preliminary approval for a bill intended to give gay and straight adult entertainment clubs displaced by the new baseball stadium a chance to reopen in other sections of the city.

But it added new language to the bill introduced earlier this year by gay Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) that places more restrictions on where six displaced nightclubs offering nude dancing can reopen, including a ban on more than two of the clubs in any single ward.

The changes came from six separate amendments introduced by Councilmember Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), who emerged as the bill’s lead opponent. Thomas and hundreds of his Ward 5 constituents rose up against the bill after learning that the six clubs planned to reopen in their ward.

Opponents claimed the clubs would create a “red light district” in close proximity to their residential neighborhoods, which they said would lead to increased crime and blight and lower real estate values, an assertion strongly denied by the club owners.

In a development that surprised some gay activists, Graham agreed to accept each of Thomas’s proposed changes as six “friendly amendments.” Graham said fierce opposition to his bill by residents of Ward 5 would have resulted in the bill’s defeat without the amendments.

“This was a victory for the clubs,” Graham said after the vote. “It was the objective of the Ward 5 people to kill this bill. They lost today.”

Thomas called the Council’s action a partial victory for residents of his ward, whom he said feared that a “clustering” of the clubs would interfere with longstanding plans for economic development in the ward.

Graham’s bill, the “One-Time Relocation of Licensees Displaced by the Ballpark Amendment Act,” is tentatively scheduled for a second and final vote in two weeks.

“This is a compromise that provides both resolution and disappointment,” said Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, which lobbied for the Graham bill. “It is a deeply flawed result, but it provides some hope for the preservation of adult entertainment choice for the gay community, even if limited.”

After introducing his six amendments and after Graham accepted them, Thomas introduced a motion to table the bill, which Council observers said would have effectively killed the measure.

Thomas said even the amended measure remained a “politically divisive issue” and he did not want more nude dance clubs “dumped” on other wards.

The City Council voted 10 to 3 to defeat Thomas’s tabling motion. Those voting for the motion were Thomas and Councilmembers Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Kwame Brown (D-At-Large).

Thomas also voted against the amended bill itself, saying he was supporting the wishes of the overwhelming majority of his constituents who opposed even one nude dance club. Joining Thomas in voting against the bill were Councilmembers Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Brown and Bowser.

Those voting for it were Council Chair Vincent Gray (D-At-Large) and Councilmembers David Catania (I-At-Large), Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), Carol Schwartz (R-At-Large), Graham, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Gray said he worked closely with Graham and Thomas in at least five private negotiating sessions to work out a compromise through the amendments. Gray and most of the other Councilmembers, including Schwartz and Evans, said they believed the clubs displaced by the new stadium had a right to remain in existence as long as they were not “over concentrated” in a single ward.

During the past year, five clubs displaced by the stadium or stadium-related development had identified tentative sites to reopen in warehouse and industrial districts in Ward 5, saying the sites were among the few remaining areas of the city suitable for adult entertainment businesses. Two of the five clubs — Ziegfeld’s-Secrets and Heat — offered male nude dance entertainment catering to a mostly gay clientele.

The sixth club, Club Rendezvous, was not located near the stadium, but had been displaced by eminent domain for an unrelated development project in Southeast Washington initiated by the city. Graham agreed to add that club to his bill in April at Barry’s request.

Edge-Wet, another gay nude dance club displaced by the stadium, announced last year it was changing its venue to cater to a straight clientele, with nude female dancers.

Thomas’ amendment preventing more than two of the displaced clubs from relocating to single ward raises questions about who would decide which of the clubs would be chosen for the more favorable sites in Ward 5.

Gay activists and former customers of Secrets-Ziegfeld’s and Heat expressed concern that the two clubs may not be able to find a new location in another ward if they lose their bid to reopen in the Ward 5 warehouse districts, where
they already have identified tentative buildings.

“That’s something the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would likely decide,” Graham said after the meeting.

But Graham acknowledged that the new language added to his bill by the Thomas amendments does not spell out who would decide which clubs should be allowed to reopen in Ward 5 or what, if any, process should be put in place to facilitate such a decision.

Other changes in the bill put in place by Thomas’ amendments would bar the clubs from locating within 1,200 feet from each other and prevent them from opening within 600 feet of a school, church, playground or area under the jurisdiction of the city’s Commission of Fine Arts.

Another change put in place by one of the Thomas amendments would prevent the clubs from moving into sections of the city designated by the D.C. Office of Planning for future redevelopment if residential development is given preliminary approval status by Nov. 1, 2007. Commercial and residential redevelopment plans are in the works for several industrial and warehouse sections of Ward 5, where the six clubs had planned to reopen.

Another of Thomas’ amendments calls for the clubs to come before local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to discuss their clubs, but it does not require the ANCs to approve the clubs.

Yet another amendment introduced by Thomas and approved by the Council would allow the clubs to move into “any C-3, C-4 or C-5 zone within 5,000 feet from the baseball stadium footprint.”

“This amendment is the most efficient way to meet the concerns of the affected licensees,” Thomas said in a statement, “because it will allow the licensees to operate with minimal impact to their businesses, their customers and the city by allowing them the option to operate in a location close to the area from which they were displaced.”

Some of the club’s supporters said they would be delighted if the displaced clubs could reopen near the new stadium but questioned whether the clubs could afford the high rents expected in that newly developed, upscale area near the Anacostia River waterfront. Owners of the displaced gay clubs have said they could not afford to reopen in the city’s downtown business district, where nude dance entertainment is allowed.

News of the clubs’ interest in moving to Ward 5 triggered a heated campaign against the businesses by Thomas and hundreds of the ward’s residents and civic activists.

Hundreds attended three Ward 5 community meetings organized by Thomas during the past two weeks to boost opposition to the Graham bill. One of the meetings took place the night before the Council vote.

More than two-dozen Ward 5 activists opposing the bill showed up at Council chambers during Tuesday’s meeting wearing T-shirts with the inscription, “No nude bars or strip clubs in Ward 5.”

Gay activists, who urged the Council to support Graham’s bill, complained that some of the news media coverage of the controversy accepted the opponents’ assertions about crime and a high concentration of “sex clubs” in a confined area of Ward 5 without attempting to verify the accuracy of such charges.

Club owners and supporters said police reports show that the clubs did not create a crime problem in the area where they were located in Southeast D.C. before being forced out by the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

Club supporters also pointed out that although two of the six clubs planned to open within a two-block area of West Virginia Avenue, N.E., the other nude dance clubs planned to open in separate locations as much as a mile or two from the West Virginia Avenue sites. They said the clubs did not plan to “cluster” together in a red light district.

“In the end, the rabble rousing about nude dancing, the lies and misrepresentations and inflammatory rhetoric, the drumbeat in the media substantially worked,” Rosendall said. “So the passage of this heavily amended bill has to be seen in that context.”

Ward 5 civic activist Audrey Ray said residents of the ward, especially residents the Ivy City section, believe nude dance clubs would detract from long-awaited plans to revitalize the area through new retail businesses and residential development. Ray said the opposition was not aimed at gay clubs, only at nude dance venues.

“Ivy City, as many of us know, has really been under the gun of high crime, prostitution, high drug distribution, high everything that’s bad,” she said. “And now we’re being given a chance to restore and revitalize as a family oriented area. We would love to have a J.C. Penney’s, a Starbucks, a Chuck E. Cheese.”

In a related development, the Council voted to table a separate bill introduced by Graham earlier this year that would place restrictions on nightclubs — both gay and straight — that admit customers under age 21.

Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who introduced the tabling
motion, said club owners had expressed concern that the restrictions would hurt business.

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