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Sex Shops Making a Comeback in Times Square

New York- Ten years after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani declared war on Times Square’s X-rated peep shows, strip joints and video stores, shops selling sexually explicit materials have slowly begun to creep back into the area, adroitly exploiting loopholes in the law – and property-owners’ demand for high-paying tenants – to stage their comeback.

Sex-related stores have been popping up again in other neighborhoods in the city, notably in Chelsea. But their reappearance on the side streets and avenues near Times Square is especially significant, given the large amount of time and money city officials have spent to reinvent the area as a family-friendly tourist destination.

The areas that have seen the biggest resurgence are on Eighth Avenue near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and on , where the number of sex shops has tripled, to 18 from 6, in a year and a half. North of 42nd Street, the increase has been smaller, with only three of the 17 stores in the area opening since 2003.

Part of the growth owes to the agility with which store owners have learned to comply with city zoning regulations adopted in the mid-1990’s to keep them out of residential neighborhoods and away from schools and churches.

But development officials and local business owners say that another factor has been the shops’ willingness to pay well above market rents.

“There’s a disparity between what the porn guys will pay and what the market will bear,” said Tom Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. “And it tends not to be the bigger landlords. It’s a guy who owns a three-story building, and the apartments above are rent-stabilized, so the great majority of his return on the building comes from the ground-floor retail.”

Once sex shops begin to move in, Mr. Tompkins said, they can set in motion a downward spiral. “More adult establishments on a street depresses the rents legitimate businesses are willing to pay,” he said, which makes it even harder for owners to find other high-paying tenants.

Some owners say they have had trouble making money on their properties in spite of the area’s recent gentrification, which has brought upscale grocery stores and wine shops even to Hell’s Kitchen, a formerly blighted neighborhood.

“The store was available for a long time, and we couldn’t rent it,” said Matthieu Goldenberg, who, with his business partner, owns and manages some 30 buildings in the area, two of which are rented to stores that sell sexually explicit DVD’s. “It’s not to our advantage to have them. But we have to pay the taxes. We have to pay the mortgage. We do what we have to do.”

And they can do it more easily, because the Giuliani-era zoning laws were substantially watered down by court challenges during the late 1990’s. Today, any store with at least 60 percent non-X-rated merchandise is not technically considered an “adult entertainment” business under the law.

“If they stock their shelves with enough copies of ‘Bambi,’ they can come within compliance,” said John Feinblatt, the city’s criminal justice coordinator.

Since stores that obey the 60/40 rule are not subject to the rules restricting sex-related businesses, they are free not only to open but to cluster-that is, open near each other – making the law a “close to impossible thing to enforce,” Mr. Feinblatt said.

Perhaps the biggest such cluster is on Eighth Avenue, where business was brisk on a recent Friday afternoon.

“There’s one,” said Bill Daley, slyly nudging his elbow toward a middle-aged man in a jacket and tie who, just seconds earlier, had darted into a doorway marked with a movie poster for “The Bourne Supremacy” but beyond which were visible titles of a saucier variety.

Mr. Daley sighed grimly. “People always think it’s the creeps and bums who go to these stores,” he said. “But if you go there after lunch or after work, you’ll see all these guys in suits. It’s usually family guys who stop on their way home.”

A few years ago, Mr. Daley left his job as head of the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement – where, in 17 years, he learned more than he really wanted to know about the etiquette of back-store peep shows, subgenres of explicit movies and types of sex toys – to work at the garment district’s revival effort, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District.

“I thought we had finished the job when I got here,” Mr. Daley said, looking up at 300 West 40th street, a dingy white-stucco building on the corner of Eighth Avenue that houses no fewer than four shops selling sexually explicit DVD’s. It’s already the single largest concentration of such stores in the area, but it could get even bigger. A fifth space in the building is currently vacant, and BID officials said that when they asked the owner, Betty J. Bobrow, for a pledge not to rent out the space to yet another shop that sells sex-related material, she declined.

Down 40th Street are two more sex shops; around the corner are a few more, and yet another, the Digital Palace, lies across Eighth Avenue. “Some of them don’t even have names,” Mr. Daley said, just movie posters in the window and gaudy neon signs promising a smorgasbord of salacity.

The first of the new stores, he said, appeared here. Then they began to promulgate in the heart of the garment district, in the upper 30’s near the Avenue of the Americas.

“Just when we were recovering from globalization, these guys started moving in,” Mr. Daley said, referring the garment district. “And they are discouraging new development.” One of the stores, he said, used to have a sign out front advertising it as “Red Light District.”

Mr. Daley, at least, gets to go home to Staten Island every night. The Rev. Peter Colapietro, pastor of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on 42nd Street, is not so lucky. Three doors down from the church rectory is the Times Square DVD and Video Center, which opened last December.

Father Colapietro says he made inquiries when the store first opened and found out that there was not much he could do.

“You could have an adult-use store in the basement of the church, and if it was in compliance, there’s not much we can do about it,” he said dryly. “The delicatessen next store had to get permission to sell beer, but not these guys.”



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