Divided City Council OKs Gay Sex Club
Over the vehement objections of organized residents, a sharply divided Los Angeles City Council narrowly agreed Wednesday to allow an east Hollywood gay sex club to remain open as long as the club’s owners meet more than two dozen new conditions.
Council members verbally wrestled with each other and their own consciences over the zoning matter for nearly two hours, finally agreeing to let the Barracks remain open despite its location near a residential area, an elementary school and a soon-to-be-completed senior citizens retirement home.
City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district includes the Santa Monica Boulevard club, made impassioned speeches, urging her colleagues to grant an exemption to city zoning laws for the sexual encounter club and pledging to shut it down herself if owners fail to meet the conditions.
“I feel emotional about this in a way I haven’t before,” Goldberg said. “The truth is, popular uses don’t need support. . . . In a democracy, it’s the unpopular that needs support.”
But several of her colleagues agreed with many of the club’s critics from the Rampart Rangers/East Hollywood Neighborhood Watch group, who also spoke before the council. The residents complained about the club’s location within 500 feet of a residential area despite a city law prohibiting adult entertainment establishments from operating that close to homes.
“This is a residential area,” said council President John Ferraro. “We should vote to close this down.”
The council acts as a type of court of last resort on zoning and land-use issues, allowing members to bring their local concerns to the full council for review. The council’s land-use committee, also acting at the behest of Goldberg, had previously endorsed the variance. The heated debate over the zoning issue was unusual for the council because when such questions come before the lawmakers, the full council typically defers to the wishes of the member in whose district the business is located.
But the Barracks struck a nerve with council members, some of whom argued that it just doesn’t belong “near schools, churches and homes,” as Councilwoman Rita Walters said. Still others argued that it was a pure land-use issue that should be judged solely as such.
The lawmakers took several votes that failed to win a majority, finally voting 8-4, with Richard Alarcon, Hal Bernson, Nate Holden and John Ferraro dissenting, to allow the Barracks to stay open with 26 new operating conditions. Among those are requirements that the club distribute condoms at the door along with information on safe sexual practices, hire a state-licensed security guard, set up a hotline for complaints and continue to use valet parking so patrons cannot park on adjacent side streets.
The zoning variance must be reviewed within 10 days by Mayor Richard Riordan. A Riordan spokeswoman said the mayor “isn’t up to speed” on the issue yet and that she was unsure how he would handle it. If Riordan vetoes Wednesday’s action, the council could override him with the support of 10 members.
After the council meeting, Goldberg met with Riordan to alert him to the issues involved and to lobby for his support. Residents, meanwhile, said they will turn their attention to the mayor’s office. Group leaders, who have hired an attorney, said they are prepared to continue fighting the club, which has operated without city permits since January.
The neighborhood fight is nothing new. A similar club, called the Meat Rack, operated in the same building for 20 years until it closed last spring.
“This is a quality-of-life issue for our neighborhood,” said Carmel Passanisi, who lives within four blocks of the club. “We don’t need this.”
Council members, including Goldberg, acknowledged that the issue was tough for the council. As Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said, “There are no perfect answers.”
But Goldberg and others said that such clubs are legal in suitably zoned areas and that concerns should be focused more on the zoning issues than on the sexual activities inside. “Unless we’re going to make them [sex clubs] illegal,” Goldberg said, “it’s a land-use issue.”
Several supporters of the club who represent gay advocacy groups charged that complaints about the business smack of homophobia.
“There is a certain air of discrimination and prejudice here,” said Kenneth Miele, co-chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Action Alliance. “We are being accused of being needle addicts, leaving used condoms around, engaging in public sex. . . . Nobody condones that.”
City AIDS policy coordinator Ferd Eggan said the club offers an opportunity to provide safe sex information to gay men, many of whom he said would not seek it out themselves.
Goldberg, who lobbied some of her colleagues during the debate to try to gain their support, said she has asked her staff as well as the police and fire departments to monitor the club. She said she also will send the hotline number to residents. The club has six months to comply with the new requirements or close.
If the club had received citations from the police, Goldberg said, she would have had different feelings on the issue.
“Their file was clean,” she said.
Los Angeles vice detectives said, however, that the club was violating laws but that the owners weren’t issued citations. Rather, the club was warned and told to comply with city laws.
Josh Kaplan, an attorney representing the club’s owner, Roger Jamil, said that the Barracks will meet the conditions and continue to operate quietly.