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Skimpy Evidence

Seattle's 15-Year Ban on New Strip Clubs Remains in Place Thanks to Faulty Assumptions, Campaign Cash, and an Uptight City Council. Oh, and It May Be Illegal.

by Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit

Back in 1989, the Seattle City Council voted to extend the city's year-old temporary moratorium on strip clubs, citing the need for "additional analysis and evaluation" of the city's adult-entertainment regulations. In 1990, the council extended the moratorium for another year, again citing the need for further analysis. The council went on to cite the need for review every year between 1991 and 2003, when it voted--in what has become a springtime ritual--to extend the moratorium, now stretching into its 15th year. But in all that time, no analysis or review--of the "temporary" moratorium, of the numerous court cases cited in the moratorium legislation, or of similar laws in other cities--has ever been done.

A "work plan" for "developing and evaluating" changes to the moratorium has similarly foundered, and a promised study has been stalled since 1988, when the moratorium first passed. As Seattle's attention has focused lately on Rick's, the Lake City strip joint whose owner and employees donated tens of thousands to city council incumbents in an apparent exchange for a parking lot expansion, the real scandal--a "temporary" moratorium that has morphed into a de facto and possibly illegal ban on new strip clubs--has gone virtually unexamined for nearly 15 years.

John Skelton, a soft-spoken land-use planner with the city's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU), has followed the strip club story since the late 1970s, when Seattle first began regulating adult theaters and cabarets. "The need [for further analysis] hasn't disappeared, by any stretch of the imagination," Skelton says. But Skelton adds that until the city council gives DCLU the financial resources it needs to conduct the long-awaited study, the department will continue to focus on "other priorities that resources have been committed to."

The city council, meanwhile, has passed the buck back to DCLU (one council member said recently that the council was "awaiting more direction" from the department). The result of the sustained moratorium has been a gradual stifling of the adult-entertainment industry as clubs across the city have shut their doors. In 2003, Seattle--a city of 550,000 people--has just three strip clubs where women perform. They are Dejà Vu Showgirls, on First Avenue downtown; Rick's, on Lake City Way in North Seattle; and the Sands, on 15th Avenue Northwest in Crown Hill. There's also a single strip club, Centerfolds, where men perform; Centerfolds, also in Crown Hill, only admits women (www.the- stranger.com/2001-06-14/city.html). Seattle has no venues where gay men can watch men perform. In contrast, Portland, Oregon--with just 350,000 people--has more than 60 strip clubs.

Opponents of strip clubs typically complain that they bring shady characters and criminal activity into residential neighborhoods. So it's ironic that the only study the city has ever done fails to show any correlation whatsoever between strip clubs and increased crime rates in Seattle. The Stranger's analysis of crime rates in the vicinity of Seattle's remaining strip clubs confirms that there's little relationship between strip clubs and neighborhood crime, despite the common perception that the clubs are magnets for drug use, vandalism, and prostitution.

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The strip club moratorium was launched when Seattle's de facto downtown red-light district, whose ground zero was First Avenue, began to gentrify as Pike Place Market expanded and well-heeled workers began to move into the area. The combination of upscale inner-city residents, a revitalization effort geared toward luring tourists downtown, and rising property values "put pressure on all the old, funky joints downtown," History-Link historian Walt Crowley says. As strip clubs were gradually pushed off First Avenue, they began migrating to the suburbs, where they made for a volatile mix in growing residential areas like Lake City and Crown Hill. "Because they were located in neighborhoods, they generated a lot of interest" from residents who feared criminal activity would follow shortly behind, Skelton says.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, that fear was largely justified. According to retired SPD narcotics officer David Wilma, prostitution in strip clubs was once fairly common--some girls, Wilma recalls, would turn tricks in the club and take customers to an apartment conveniently located nearby--and Seattle's vice squad did a brisk business busting strippers for prostitution. But as new avenues--such as massage parlors and the Internet--opened up for prostitutes to conduct their business, strip clubs became increasingly superfluous, according to Wilma. Today, he says, while "it doesn't take too much of a leap of faith to imagine some dancers practicing prostitution near the club, it doesn't seem necessary" anymore. Today as then, Wilma says, strip clubs operate with a single purpose: "Separate the sucker from his buck." As for his own area of expertise, Wilma notes that although he handled plenty of drug busts on the narcotics beat, "we saw many more drug deals in Denny's than we did in strip clubs."

The perception that prostitution and drug dealing are, as the Seattle Times put it in 1997, "inevitable" around the clubs is echoed in the text of the moratorium, which attests to "growing evidence" that topless dancing constitutes "a threat to the public health, safety and welfare." But despite the city's repeated allusions to an emerging body of evidence, the one report it has produced on the moratorium--completed in 1989--found no direct connection in Seattle between strip clubs and increased crime. That may be because the city didn't examine local crime rates, instead citing statistics from New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and other large cities. As of 1989, the report acknowledges, "no analyses or comparative studies [had] been done to verify a correlation between adult entertainment uses and criminal activity"; that remains the case to this day.

Looking at more current local statistics, The Stranger found little evidence that strip clubs are uniquely dangerous. In every case except that of Dejà Vu--a club whose census tract includes all of Pioneer Square and most of downtown--the crime rates for the census tracts surrounding Seattle strip clubs and the tracts immediately next door are virtually identical; and in many cases, the tracts without strip clubs have higher rates of prostitution, rape, vandalism, and drug use--the very crimes cited as neighborhood concerns in the 1989 report. Records of 911 calls over the last year for police response to Dejà Vu and the Showbox, a nearby live-music club, show that while Dejà Vu had slightly more reports of harassment, voyeurism, and vice, the Showbox had more complaints for burglary, indecent exposure, and assault. And both clubs' crime rates were generally comparable, contradicting the common belief that strip clubs are magnets for drug use, prostitution, and vice. Essentially, the crime stats show what everybody already knows: Whenever lots of people congregate--whether it's in a strip club, a nightclub, or at Seafair--there's bound to be occasional trouble. But only in the case of strip clubs is everyday crime used as an excuse to ban a legal business. If the city applied this policy fairly, Seafair would be banned.

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A moratorium, by its very nature, is supposed to be temporary. According to David Osgood, a local attorney who successfully defended the Central District club Oscar's II against harassment by the city in 2002, a moratorium is legally defined as a "stopgap measure to study a problem and then enact some sort of legislative ruling." When a moratorium becomes indefinite--as the city's moratorium on strip clubs inarguably has--"it's no longer a moratorium," Osgood says. "It's a de facto ban."

Nude dancing--unlike other heavily restricted practices, such as gambling--is protected free speech under the First Amendment and the Washington State Constitution. Sooner or later, someone is likely to challenge the ban (Peter Steinbrueck, the only council member who has ever voted against the moratorium, predicted back in 1998 that "it would come back to haunt us")--and when that happens, Osgood says, "I suspect it [will] fall like a house of cards. You just cannot pass a moratorium, year after year, for 15 years and not show any progress on it in all that time."

One reason a challenge hasn't arisen is that the only way to dispute the moratorium is to try to open a strip club, an expensive and risky proposition that no one has attempted since the law was put in place. And no one, not even civil rights groups like the ACLU, is making an issue of the ban; according to local ACLU spokesperson Doug Honig, strip clubs are outside the group's area of expertise.

If there's little public-safety justification for the moratorium, if it's legally dubious, if nearly everyone agrees that it needs (at the very least) to be revisited after 15 years, why does the city council vote year after year to keep it alive? Judy Nicastro, who chairs the committee that brings the moratorium up every year, even admits--sheepishly--that the moratorium is "unfair." Steinbrueck, who says he "gave up" voting against the moratorium after his first year on the council, points out that no council member wants to be thought of as the champion of strip clubs. That could be why every vote upholding the strip club moratorium, with the exception of Steinbrueck's lone dissenting vote in 1998, has been unanimous: There simply isn't any constituency on the council for overturning the ban.

There is one constituency, however, that does have a vested interest in keeping the moratorium in place: Seattle's three existing strip clubs. As one dancer, who wanted to remain anonymous, put it, the moratorium is "good for business.... It [limits] where the men can go." Here's one indication of how brisk business is at Dejà Vu: Late on a recent Sunday night, nearly 50 guys sat in rows bunched around the small wooden stage, where women slithered under black lights. Every five minutes, a stripper led a customer to one of the dressing-room-size stalls that encircled the front room. (Equally persistent was a more modestly clad woman with a clipboard, who seemed to be keeping count.) One dancer said that she could take home between $800 and $1,000 during a six-hour shift--if she got enough center-stage time.

It's hard to know exactly how profitable Rick's, Dejà Vu, and the Sands are, but with $20 door fees, $20 lap dances, $10 soft drinks in paper cups, and no Seattle competition (the immediate suburbs have about three strip clubs), it's safe to say the moratorium is adding profits to an already lucrative industry.

So, as the mainstream press obsessed over an isolated incident--the apparent quid pro quo of campaign donations for a parking lot expansion--we've tried to call attention to the larger story about city hall and strip clubs: the moratorium [Five to Four, July 24 and August 7].

Like clockwork, in April or May every year, the council passes a moratorium on building new strip clubs in Seattle. And like clockwork, in April or May, folks in Seattle's strip club industry--like Rick's owner Frank Colacurcio Jr., Colacurcio Jr.'s attorney Gilbert Levy, and longtime porn industry player Roger Forbes (identified in city Ethics & Elections records as president of Dejà Vu's bookkeeper, Consolidated Bookkeeping, until November 2002)--make donations. For example, Levy contributed $600 to Heidi Wills on April 27, 2001; the moratorium was renewed on April 30, 2001. Levy contributed $600 to Jim Compton on April 18, 2002; the moratorium was passed on April 22, 2002. Forbes contributed $600 to Wills in the spring of 2001. Ann Forbes, also of Consolidated, maxed out to Wills in the spring of 2001. In fact, Consolidated has donated nearly $9,000 in the last four years--well over $1,000 coming around moratorium time. Council Member Heidi Wills even told The Stranger, practically laughing, "The Dejà Vu guy [Forbes] maxes out to every council member every year, right around the moratorium." That's not quite true, but clearly, Wills is aware of the connection.

While the moratorium obviously gives Seattle's existing strip clubs a lock on the market, it also gives management a competitive lock on the dancers. The fee women must pay clubs for the privilege of stripping (the daily "house fee") has doubled in the last five years from about $70 to $140, according to one dancer who has worked at two local strip clubs. Meanwhile, strip club owners stockpile clubs with too many dancers, padding their pockets with house fees while cutting into strippers' nightly wages. "At night, there would be 100 to 150 girls" at Dejà Vu, says the dancer, a trim woman with long brown hair, "and so you'd get to go on stage maybe just once [during] a whole shift." With so few stage appearances, she says, dancers can't promote themselves for lap dances, where they make the bulk of their money. That's no loss to management, though: The more dancers, the more $140 fees. (None of Seattle's strip club owners responded to requests for interviews through their registered business agents.)

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In the wake of Strippergate--and in the context of a questionable moratorium--it's clear the public and press have a hypocritical view of strip clubs. While the public was outraged because the apparent cozy relationship between Rick's and city hall led to eight new parking spaces, they've ignored the same cozy relationship year after year when it has led to a de facto ban on new clubs. It's especially frustrating when that ban has been kept in place by a report that's misleading, underwhelming, and incomplete.

Ultimately, maintaining a ban on strip clubs is condescending. Nine council members shouldn't have the right to squash a legal business just because Seattle is squeamish about pubes and areolae--and if the ban is ever challenged, the council may lose that right. If the ban was simply overturned, strip clubs would go back to being regulated as "performing arts theaters," a designation that would allow them to open in commercial and neighborhood commercial (but not residential) zones. More likely, though, according to Skelton, the council would adopt DCLU's 1989 recommendation, which would allow new strip clubs in just two areas: downtown (where they've historically been clustered) and in SoDo, which is already mostly industrial--hardly a disaster. Unfortunately, we don't have a council that's willing to do the right thing on this issue.

barnett@thestranger.com

josh@thestranger.com

 

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