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January 6th, 2005

Adult Stores The New Downtown Albatross

by David Gruber

There has been a tremendous increase in “adult” stores in the West Village. At least a dozen or so stores have opened recently, some in landmark areas, some on quiet residential streets and others in more general but low-level commercial zones. These stores can truly destroy a neighborhood. This influx has occurred for several reasons. When Times Square was “cleaned up,” it wasn’t really cleaned up so much as it was dispersed and Greenwich Village has received much of the residue (the police often refer to Greenwich Village as Times Square South). The reason we are inundated is that the Village has tremendous street foot traffic (we are the second largest tourist destination after Times Square) and great subway access. There is also the prevailing belief that we are more accepting in Greenwich Village than other communities might be, and we are therefore, more willing to accept the Village as a sex business center.

The real problem is that the adult industry has taken the City to court to test the First Amendment validity of the law passed in the Giuliani Administration. The law, it turns out, was written very poorly and was passed without any hearings that could later survive a court challenge. The claim that these stores bring undesirable people into neighborhoods and make a neighborhood less attractive for desirable merchants was not supported by evidence presented to the Council. In addition, the law did not define as illegal much of the content in the stores, such as dildos, vibrators, whips, latex masks, and ointments sold in sexually explicit boxes. The City, with the prodding of the adult industry, deems these sex toys to be “marital aids.” Thus, such items are not counted as part of the 40% that is allowed in such stores under the 60/40 regulations. The regulation provides that, if a store has over 40% of its inventory in adult materials, it is in violation of the law. That 40%, therefore, only applies to videos, magazines, and books. In fact, the adult industry lawyers have won the first round. The Bloomberg Administration is now aggressively appealing it and many in the community are urging them on.

Meanwhile, the appeals process continues and the courts have enjoined the City from enforcing the laws as written. So while adult stores are not supposed to be located in C-1 zones (most of the Village commercial areas are zone C-1), or near schools and churches etc, the City cannot stop the stores. For the moment, as the 60/40 test is not being breached, they are therefore not considered adult stores, but just commercial enterprises and can operate wherever they choose with impunity. They have not migrated back to Times Square en mass. The new hotel/Disney/gussied-up-revamped theater district that is now in place in the former sex shop zones have been out priced.

The GVBA (Greenwich Village Block Association), the umbrella organization for all 36 individual block associations in the Village, has created a task force to voice our collective rage against the adult stores. GVBA has begun to formulate creative plans for alternative methods of enforcement while we await the final court decisions. It will also lobby for more stringent laws-with adequate supporting testimony from the community to be passed by the City Council.

To that end, we have also been very aggressive with the media, both locally and throughout the City and State. Recent TV segments on UPN 9, and WCBS News as well as articles in the NY Times, the Daily News and other publications have affected politicians from the Mayors Office, the City Council, and Albany, and has stressed the urgency of the situation.

Some of the tactics now being used during this period are very aggressive Building Department, Fire, Sanitation and Environmental code enforcement. The City, through the Mayor’s Office, goes into a store with a flying squad of members of these agencies and looks for violations with a microscope and then issues reams of summonses (is that peep booth handicapped accessible?). They also look at other properties owned by the same landlord and do the same kinds of inspections. The plan is to make it costly for both the store to operate and for the landlord to rent to them in the first place. It is an interesting concept of using code regulations already on the books to respond to loosely enforced or inadequately written laws. If the Bloomberg Administration has the political will to do what we can call “radical coding” this could be a viable holding action until straightforward, comprehensive, enforceable legislation is passed. It is a concept that can also be applied to similarly violated laws such as billboard abuses and illegal street vending.

What is happening in the Village can easily move south to SoHo. The idea is to build a strong downtown coalition and have a much stronger collective voice with this and other issues.

David Gruber

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics

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