Battle Rages Over Adult Businesses : Controversy: Zoning ordinance governing Stanton's stretch of Beach Boulevard faces another legal challenge.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first glance, the 2 1/2-mile stretch of Beach Boulevard from Cerritos Avenue to the Garden Grove Freeway looks pretty much like any other section of the road.

There is a Der Wienerschnitzel here, not far from a doughnut shop and a Del Taco. A large 99-Cent-Only store vies for customers near a shop specializing in antique Ford parts. And set back along both sides of the road, an array of apartment buildings and houses provides thousands of residences.

Amid the traffic sounds and well-lit street signs, however, landmarks of a more dubious sort mark this ribbon of highway. There are three adult businesses here, two of them thriving and a third engaged in a drawn-out legal battle with the city to open its doors. And set against this backdrop of controversial erotica, a small, ever-shifting population of prostitutes ply their trade.

This is no Hollywood Boulevard, mind you. More likely to be wearing jeans than tight-fitting dresses, these women make their way up and down the boulevard nodding subtly to passersby before leaning into the opened window of the occasional stopped car long enough to strike a deal and hop in.

If you weren't looking, you probably wouldn't notice them. But this little stretch of Beach Boulevard, like Harbor Boulevard to the east and a few other spots across the county, has something of a seamy history. "The street is known, " said one prostitute, who has been working this section of Beach on and off for the last 20 years.

But it's also something of a success story for neighborhood activists trying to change things here. City and law enforcement officials say the problem is much less severe now than it was seven years ago, when they united with various community groups to put the brakes on prostitution.

At one point the prostitution was so rampant that then-Mayor Sal Sapien personally led a group of marchers up and down the boulevard bearing signs urging hookers to get out of town. The prostitution problem "is never solved," said Sapien, now a city councilman. "It's intermittent. We have to keep continuous vigilance."

The current focus of that vigilance is a would-be cabaret called the Fun House whose owner wants to offer customers live, nude entertainment. On one side of the protracted legal battle are city officials who say the nude theater would encourage prostitution and is in violation of a recently enacted zoning ordinance that prohibits adult-oriented businesses within 300 feet of residential areas. On the other side is the cabaret's owner, who argues that his presence on Beach Boulevard would improve the street's security and that the city's zoning ordinance is unconstitutionally restrictive.

"There are too many holes in the ordinance," said Stewart Cadwell, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who opened the club earlier this year. "So far all they've really offered are alternative uses, something other than what we can really do to make a living."

It's not the first time this sort of argument has raged along Stanton's segment of the boulevard. The discussion began, in fact, in 1985 with the opening of Earmark Books, a book and video store featuring sexually graphic magazines and 25-cent video "peep shows."

The city opposed that opening too on the grounds that the business was too close to a residential area. Eventually, however, an appellate judge sided with Earmark, ruling in effect that the city's zoning ordinance was too restrictive. And before the city could revise its legally discredited ordinance, a second adult business--the TJ Theater--began offering live, nude entertainment a few miles up the road.

Cadwell said he opened the Fun House in February as a comedy club. "We spent thousands of dollars on advertising, hired headline comedy acts and got hundreds of phone calls," he said. But on opening night, he said, "only 15 people showed up, and it never got any better."

For six weeks the club struggled. Then, Cadwell said, he began noticing that every Friday and Saturday night his parking lot was overflowing with cars whose drivers mistakenly thought they were at the TJ Theater. "What I began to realize," he said, "is that I was in the right location but the wrong business."

So one night in March, Cadwell offered live, nude entertainment, drew a capacity crowd and promptly got shut down by the city. The theater has been closed ever since, its fate hanging on the outcome of a court hearing scheduled for Sept. 7.

Not all of the entrepreneur's business neighbors are happy with the kind of image they believe adult businesses tend to create.

"It's terrible," said Gilbert Nunez, manager of the 99-Cent-Only store near Earmark Books, of the atmosphere created by the adult businesses. "It hurts our business. I really don't like it, but what can I do?"

Others say they don't mind the adult businesses themselves as much as the illegal activities--such as prostitution--that they believe such establishments attract. "The businesses don't bother anyone," said one shopkeeper, who declined to give his name. "It's (the other illegal activities); about a year ago it nearly put us out of business."

Nobody knows exactly how or when the prostitution here began, although law enforcement officials say that it almost certainly preceded the establishment of the first adult business.

However it began, by 1986 the crime had grown so rampant that law enforcement officers were counting 50 to 60 streetwalkers a night along the stretch of Beach Boulevard within Stanton city limits. In one month during that period, they said, 554 arrests were made for prostitution.

In response to the public's clamor for change, city and law enforcement officials--working closely with a variety of community groups--organized a multifaceted assault against prostitution on Beach Boulevard. Curbs were painted red, making street parking illegal. Sapien, then mayor, personally led a picket line of angry community activists. And arrests were dramatically stepped up, aided by a highly visible paddy wagon adorned by the picture of a streetwalker crossed out in the international "no" sign.

Today the problem has waned, according to Capt. Bob Eason of the Sheriff's Department, which is responsible for law enforcement in Stanton. During all of last year, he said, 238 people were arrested for prostitution, most of them along Beach Boulevard. And during the first four months of 1993, he said, there were 63 arrests, compared to 85 during the same period in 1992.

"It's not all that significant," Eason said of the current level of arrests. "We just try to keep a lid on it."

Sapien, for his part, said he is pleased with the Sheriff's Department's efforts to transform Beach Boulevard. "Beach should be a nice, clean boulevard with upscale commercial centers following the pattern we have created over the last five years," the councilman said. "I'd like to see nice, prosperous businesses along the boulevard, and I'd like to see it safe and free of crime."

Some of the remaining prostitutes, meanwhile, say that life on the street is getting tougher. One of them, a 45-year-old who can make up to $150 a day, said a customer recently knocked out most of her front teeth.

"I'm trying to break away from it," said Donna, speaking on the condition that her last name not be used. "But I'm stuck; I don't know what else to do."

At least one other person would like to see the prostitutes leave. "It's disgusting, plain and simple," said Nancy White, 26, who has watched the street's activity from the house she grew up in just two blocks off Beach Boulevard. "I don't like it. It's giving the neighborhood a bad name."

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