Residents and the red-light district

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June 4, 2002 // UPDATED 1:22 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Tim Neuenschwander
Tim Neuenschwander

14 years ago, city officials forced adult-entertainment businesses Downtown; a few years later, they encouraged people to live there. Are the two policies incompatible?

The sign suspended against the exterior of an adult dance club extols an ambiguous warning to the potential clientele that pass by: "Caution: Women at Work."

Inside the lighting is dim, save for the multi-colored stage lights that illuminate the catwalk. A sad song sifts over the seating area, a little number by the Rolling Stones called "As Tears Go By." The DJ announces the arrival of "Rain," a petite brunette dancer whose silky white evening gown contrasts with the drab backdrop: a mural of a mountainside lake around the midnight hour. No matter though, as she will soon defrock as she scales a brass pole, momentarily straddling it at the top before she begins making her rounds at the tip rail.

The down-and-dirty action happens just a few blocks from Downtown's burgeoning residential districts.

Since 1988, it has been official city policy to sequester all new adult-entertainment businesses in the Downtown core and Warehouse District. In February, councilmembers Gary Schiff (9th Ward) and Joe Biernat (3rd Ward) co-authored a zoning-code revision that conceivably would intensify Downtown's red-light district, near the town homes, condos and apartments that have sprung up even faster in recent years than strip clubs did after the 1988 law.

Schiff's and Biernat's ordinance goes one step beyond forcing new sex businesses Downtown: it allows the city to evict existing adult-entertainment businesses from non-Downtown neighborhoods and gives owners one year to move Downtown. The ordinance passed unanimously.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents most of Downtown east of Hennepin Avenue and picked up the rest in recent redistricting, was a yes vote. She acknowledged, "One could probably make the argument, 'won't [sex-oriented businesses] come Downtown now?'"

Her answer: they could, but probably won't. "They can't afford to come Downtown," she said. "Look at the dilapidated buildings they're in now. So I don't think it will do anything to increase the number of sexually oriented uses Downtown, just simply take them out of an area where they're not already allowed."

"It's the ultimate step in land control," said Schiff. "It's saying to these businesses, 'you can no longer be where you are, you must relocate.'"

The revision was specifically designed to reinvigorate the commercial culture around Lake Street and northeast Minneapolis, where about a dozen non-Downtown saunas and strip clubs remain. Those neighbors complain that the adult businesses bring crime and discourage other businesses from locating there.

Just saying no

At least one Downtown resident feels the same thing is happening in his neighborhood.

Jim Grabek has lived near the intersection of North 1st Avenue and 4th Street for two and a half years. He is chairman of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, formed last year to represent the Downtown west of 3rd Avenue North and much of the western riverfront.

Grabek said that even though the adult clubs and shops may make the itinerary for Downtown visitors and tourists, they are inappropriate for the surrounding community and the families establishing roots in the city's heart. He predicted that many of these new Warehouse District residents would flee for the suburbs in search of a safe haven from the sex trade if business intensifies.

"I think they are detrimental to the objectives or strategy of building a Downtown historic residential area," Grabek said of the adults-only establishments. "Morally, they are probably found to be quite objectionable by the majority of the residents that live in this area and want to maintain or increase the value of their investment."

However, the two trends have so far happened simultaneously: adult-oriented businesses have opened Downtown, and more residents have gobbled up expensive nearby condos and townhomes.

Shel Hoffman, of SR Hoffman Associates, has marketed high-density upscale urban housing Downtown for 20 years, including The Landings development, 4th Avenue North and West River Parkway. He acknowledged that the adult-oriented businesses "have had a negligible effect on housing we have done along the river."

However, he said, the basic premise still holds: "Adult entertainment and housing do not do well side-by-side."

Hoffman argues while the Downtown's sex boom and housing boom have happened together, a tipping point may be near in which adult businesses hurt residential attractiveness. "If we talk about a 'saturation point,' we're there or maybe have exceeded it," he said.

Arrests up

Grabek believes a major factor that is or will adversely affect property values is the perceived illegal activities associated with adult-orientated establishments, such as drug-dealing and prostitution.

The Minneapolis Police Department's Community Response Team (CRT) deals with those problems Downtown.

According to police crime stats, Downtown prostitution arrests have soared in the last two years. In 1997, police made 45 arrests; the number fell to 25 in 1998, rose to 35 in 1999, then hit 108 in 2000 and 109 in 2001.

Police caution that arrest data does not equal convictions, and may reflect enforcement, not correlate with overall prostitution activity. Since 2000, police have been more aggressive about investigating "livability" crimes that might affect residents and workers on Downtown's streets and skyways.

Sgt. Andy Schmidt of the Downtown Command said a majority of prostitution cases originate from strip clubs and escort services that provide prostitutes to hotel patrons. Even though the clubs are cooperative when it comes to handling these occurrences, Schmidt said it is difficult to prevent sex solicitations. Complaints are rare, and deals are made in secret.

"It will happen where the dancers are making arrangements with the customers to meet them at another location for prostitution," Schmidt said. "Or some of the clubs have VIP rooms or theme rooms where you pay an extra fee to go in a very private room and then sex acts can occur in there for money."

(An anonymous dancer at a local club said that one out of every two customers who elects for a private dance propositions her for paid sex.)

However, the furtive nature of such prostitution reduces the impact -- neighbors may rarely see the activity.

Some blas

That's the reason one Downtown resident thinks the sex trade is no more offensive than some of the Warehouse District's ubiquitous advertising.

"I think the [adult entertainment] element is everywhere," said 26-year-old resident Jenna Stookey, who has lived Downtown for two years. "I don't think they show anything more offensive outdoors than those Skyy Vodka ads with the women in bikinis. That's just as explicit or more explicit than anything I see because of those establishments. The advertising gets more risqu than these establishments do on the outside."

Anthony Pedote, a managing partner at the coffee house and nude dance club Choice, said that adult-entertainment businesses offer an intimate alternative for nightlife entertainment Downtown. He said that establishments such as these are essential to the city's nightlife and that his club caters to a wide range of customers on a regular basis.

On an average Friday night, Pedote said that the club could admit any variety of customers, running the gamut from 18- to 21-year-olds who come for the totally nude, non-alcoholic environment, to business executives in town for a convention. He added that nearly a third of the club's business comes from the gay and lesbian community, and it is also common to see husbands and wives enjoying a show and purchasing dances for each other.

"Part of the business of being a city is that you have to cater to the night life," Pedote said. "I think the people in City Hall forget that they are only here in the day time. They don't see what happens at nighttime. People come to this Downtown because they want to go to a party."

Some Downtown residents even believe the clubs provide a positive alternative to adverse behavior that coincides with the preponderance of bars in the vicinity.

"It gives people something else to do besides sit around at home after the bars, and they can sober up before they have to drive home," said Kate Peterka, a Downtown resident since last August.

Peterka lives in a two-year-old apartment building on North 1st Street that was once an industrial train yard. "They can just calm down before they go home and rile up a whole apartment building, if they live in one, and not be destructive," she added.

Relocating the red light?

Despite sponsoring an ordinance revision that could put more sex-oriented businesses in the Warehouse District, Schiff said that if the Downtown residential community continues to expand, someday the city may relocate them again.

The councilmember said that another shift for these types of businesses would require a city-wide dialogue on the topic, which would ideally move the industry to an industrial edge of Downtown that is separate from the residential neighborhoods.

"I think the ordinance was a product of the time," Schiff said. "It was also indicative of an era, because Downtown was not seen as a residential environment. It might be time to rethink that."

Staff writer Jayne Solinger contributed to this story.