City Denies Strip Club Liquor License

September 18, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Mark London, owner of Sensations Showgirls Nightclub, recently was denied the transfer of a liquor license to his planned adult-entertainment develop at
234 Market Ave. SW
, the Showgirls Galleria Mall.

The license would have created a second Sensations location just blocks from downtown.

"I'm not overly surprised," London said. "I was kind of expecting something like this the whole time. What disappoints me about the city's action is that our intent and desire was to create an R-rated operation with the major thrust (being) the liquor and topless operation."

London said his company, M.L. Blair LLC, will continue with development in the former Sennett Steel building, but instead of a second Sensations location with adjoined full-nude dancing and bookstore, it will focus primarily on the full-nude dancing.

He compared the situation to a video store with X-rated films in the back corner being forced to carry nothing but X-rated films.

Since he announced his intentions this past spring, London has maintained that if city officials did not want the adult-oriented enterprise downtown, they should have stipulated that when the zoning code was rewritten last year. But it appears that in this case, it was.

In almost all cases in Grand Rapids, the transfer of a liquor license must be approved in a public hearing before the planning commission. In most cases, this amounts to nothing more than a formality.

London and his lawyer, George Pawlowski of Murray, Pawlowski and Flanke, were surprised two weeks ago when he was notified that he would instead need to appear before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

"In this case, the underlying zoning is industrial. While the adult activities are permitted in the industrial zone, the liquor-related activity is not," explained zoning supervisor Susan Thompson. "A bar or a restaurant that serves alcohol, any of those uses are not permitted and would have to go to the zoning board for approval. Those other things didn't have any influence."

This creates a unique Catch-22 for London

Last year, the zoning code pertaining to adult-oriented activity within Grand Rapids was rewritten. Prior to the rewrite, adult use was permitted in C-2 commercial zones provided it was located at least 500 feet from a residential property. When the Velvet Touch Adult Bookstore on

28th Street SE
moved into an area that was closer than 500 feet to residential property, the zoning board granted a variance.

That decision was overturned, however, prompting a lawsuit by the bookstore against the city. Although that case is ongoing, a judgment in federal court declared that the city of Grand Rapids had, in effect, zoned out permitted use for adult-oriented businesses.

"It turned out that our old code was unconstitutional," said planner Bill Hoyt. "When we mapped it out, we were able to identify only about two or three locations that a business like this could locate. The court said that wasn't sufficient."

Now, though a number of qualifiers are attached, adult-use is permitted in C-4 commercial zones and I-1 and I-2 industrial zones.

But according to Thompson, the sale of alcohol is not permitted use in an industrial zone.

"Normally it wouldn't be zoned for anything other than industrial use like manufacturing and warehousing," she said. "(The judgment) said that we weren't providing enough locations for adult-oriented businesses that are permitted under the Constitution. We added that they can go into light industrial districts, but we didn't also say that you can have bars, restaurants, that kind of thing."

"They hatched that along the way," London contends. "There was no question that when they wrote it they intended it be open and available for a liquor license. I've shown it to lawyer after lawyer and they all agree. But (the city) never figured anyone would try to open a place downtown."

He still has the option to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals to seek the transfer through non-permitted use, but said that he does not intend to appeal the decision.

"That's a trap," he added.

According to Thompson, London will have to make an appearance before the zoning board either way.

"I've heard that we're forcing them to do an all-nude bar, but at this point, they couldn't go forward with that either," she explained. "They still need to ask for a variance to waive the parking issues.

"If they had come to us before they announced their intentions, we could have guided them and helped to smooth this out. Now he's made this big investment and has this big building. But I understand why they might not want to do that."

In 1993, the zoning department rewrote the code to block London from opening a topless nightclub on MonroeCenter. Although less than a third of the establishment was intended for adult use, London said bad publicity and the possibility of long litigation prompted him to abandon the idea, at a loss of thousands of dollars.

London believes that the opening of a full-nude juice bar will have a negative effect on both the business's potential and the surrounding neighborhood.

"I've built up a large female clientele over the years, and they are not going to go downtown for all-nude," he explained. "And we've talked about secondary effects — Sensations has had no secondary effects. (CenterPointe) Mall is doing better than it ever was, and we didn't drive away Krispy Kreme or PetSmart. That's not the same story for places like the Red Barn (Adult Bookstore on

28th Street
, with full-nude dancers). Those places do drive down property values."

London said that he would keep to his original intention to create an establishment that is "classy, clean and safe."    

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