Long Beach to Try Zoning Gambit on Adult Attractions

Times Staff Writer

Each day the story's the same on Gundry Avenue. Albert and Dorothy Watson take up post behind the Venetian blinds in their comfortable, three-bedroom house and watch the tide of strangers roll into the neighborhood.

The intruders, almost always men, pull up in their cars, glance furtively at the neighborhood's knot of tidy homes, and head for a common destination--the Grand Prix Theater, an X-rated movie house at the end of the block.

An elderly couple, the Watsons don't much like what the theater has done to their North Long Beach neighborhood since the business opened in 1972.

Patrons, they say, routinely litter and hog parking spots on the street. On one occasion, a man paused to urinate in the couple's neatly clipped shrubs. Worst of all, the Watsons fear that the theater acts as a magnet for crime, attracting prostitutes who ply their trade on nearby Artesia Boulevard.

"This was a nice neighborhood until that thing came in here," said Dorothy Watson, 75. "I'd like to get rid of it so I could spend my last few years on earth in a nice, quiet neighborhood again."

Ambitious Effort

She may not have to wait long. The Long Beach City Council has undertaken an ambitious effort that would force adult bookstores and theaters like the Grand Prix out of residential neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the council ordered the city attorney to draw up an ordinance that would give adult-oriented businesses located within 500 feet of residential areas, churches or schools until January, 1989, to move. The measure will be reviewed by the Planning Commission, then returned to the council for possible adoption.

The sweeping new proposal has been given impetus by a recent U. S. Supreme Court decision that permits regulation of adult-oriented businesses under zoning laws, without considering whether the books and movies they deal in are obscene.

Councilman Warren Harwood, who is championing the legislation, contends that the dozens of adult theaters and bookstores peppered in neighborhoods throughout Long Beach create an unfair hardship for residents.

"The impact on the neighborhoods is tremendous," Harwood said. "A certain type of clientele looking for a certain type of entertainment is attracted to these businesses. That provides a potential market for prostitutes and other crime and that's just not compatible with a comfortable residential community."

'Unfounded Assumption'

Operators of adult-oriented businesses chafe at such assessments, maintaining that their patrons are no different than those flocking to general-release movie houses or bookstores.

"This proposal is built on the unfounded assumption that people who go to adult theaters are somehow different," said Stanley Fleishman, a Los Angeles attorney representing Pussycat Theaters, which operates the X-rated Lakewood theater in Long Beach. "It's kind of a return to Jim Crow. They want to segregate these theaters."

Rufus Harrison, owner of the Grand Prix Theater, said the proposed law "seems kind of unjustified" because he and other operators of adult theaters and bookstores have invested their money and time into the businesses.

"If you're going to enforce it, enforce it from the beginning," Harrison said. "Don't just start giving a guy a hassle after he's already got the business going."

While city officials contend that the law would force adult bookstores and theaters to simply relocate to more suitable sites in industrial sections of Long Beach, Fleishman said the measure amounts to "a transparent effort to get rid of adult theaters throughout the city" once and for all.

"There's no practical place to go," he said, adding that the proposal was an effort to exclude adult businesses for "no reason other than prejudice and stupidity."

Bid Called Censorship

Moreover, Fleishman said, the law was "a veiled attempt" at censorship and promised that adoption of the measure by the City Council would only prompt a prolonged legal battle he is confident could be won by backers of adult-oriented businesses.

In recent years, the courts have been the battlefront for numerous struggles between city governments and adult theaters in Los Angeles County and throughout the country.

Despite such fireworks, those conflicts could soon be eclipsed by the new law being considered by Long Beach council members.

The sweeping legislation is by no means the first effort by the council to regulate adult-oriented businesses. In 1977, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting adult-oriented businesses from opening up near residential neighborhoods, churches and schools. That measure, however, did not challenge existing bookstores and theaters--such as the Grand Prix--which were opened before the council took its action.

Last month, the legal groundwork was laid for the new assault on those businesses.

The U. S. Supreme Court on Feb. 25 ruled that cities could use their zoning powers to disperse adult theaters and bookstores to combat the spread of crime, congestion and economic decline. The high court made it clear that such zoning ordinances are permissible so long as they are not aimed at suppressing the content of the movies and give adult theaters "reasonable alternatives" to relocate.

Similar Proposal in L.A.

After learning of the Supreme Court decision, Harwood began planning his push for a Long Beach ordinance to force existing adult-oriented businesses out of residential areas, a measure patterned after a similar law being considered in Los Angeles.

As Harwood sees it, the high court decision gives city officials authority to relocate the existing adult theaters and bookstores so long as the businesses are given an "amortization period" of three years before they are required to move. That three-year stretch allows the businesses sufficient time to move without being hurt economically, the councilman said.

The ordinance, Harwood contends, would help solve "chronic problems" caused by the theaters and bookstores in neighborhoods throughout the city.

"This is not a matter of censorship, it's a matter of incompatible land use," Harwood said. "Those businesses contribute to blight. It's like having a business that's noisy or environmentally unsafe. They discourage the best homeowners and residents from hanging around. You lose pride in the neighborhood."

Also, Harwood said, adult bookstores and cinemas attract crime, most notably prostitutes.

'It's All a Lie'

Fleishman, however, said such accusations are unfounded fabrications and insisted that prostitution and other crimes are uncommon at adult theaters.

"If you're talking about prostitution, it's all a lie," Fleishman said. "The absolute reality is that at the theaters we have, we're as good as or better than general-release theaters in terms of maintenance, in terms of the appointments, in terms of the people who come to watch the movies, everything."

Nonetheless, Long Beach police say they have made numerous arrests at adult-entertainment businesses, particularly for lewd-conduct offenses.

About one quarter of the nearly 600 lewd-conduct arrests in 1985 involved patrons inside adult businesses, according to Lt. Richard Lacey, commander of the department's vice detail. Also, prostitution arrests have been made on the sidewalks just outside--and in some cases inside--several adult theaters and bookstores, Lacey said, although he could not provide statistics.

"It's something we have to watch all the time," Lacey said. "Those businesses attract some unsavory characters."

Despite such assessments, Grand Prix Theater owner Harrison said he has worked diligently to keep prostitution and other criminal activities away from his movie house.

'I'm a Family Man'

"I'll pay $100 to anybody who can prove it's happening in front of my place," Harrison said. "I challenge anyone to prove it. I will not have that. I'm a family man. I have children of my own."

But residents have other worries. Most notably, they expressed concern about the patrons who frequent the tiny theater, which is housed in a squat building in the shadow of a massive billboard on Artesia Boulevard.

"The kind of people these places attract are not the kind I want around my kids," said Connie Miller, 37, a neighbor who has four children, ages 12 years to 9 months.

Some homeowners, meanwhile, said the worst day-to-day headache is the parking problems caused by theater patrons.

"Mostly they park, go see the show, come back and hurry off. I guess they don't want to be seen," said Kathleen Stevens, 61, a Gundry Avenue resident for 40 years. "When it rains you get even more of them in there. Mostly it's the construction workers who are off for the day."

Harrison said he has warned theater patrons about litter and parking problems, but has been hard pressed to control their actions outside the movie house.

"I respect the neighbors. I understand their feelings," Harrison said. "If I could start all over again, I'd prefer to be out somewhere where my business wouldn't offend everyone."

Longtime neighbors like Dorothy Watson wish Harrison could do just that.

"I'm not a prude," she said. "Sex is sex. I know these things exists. But let's not put it in a neighborhood with lots of kids and grandma and grandpa."

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