Bobby Hammill sits in his office in the new BJ Roosters on Cheshire Bridge Road. Opened just last month, the gay club is twice the size of its old location just down the street. His neighbors are Jungle and Heretic, two other popular gay clubs, and the Doll House, a strip club.
“I’ve lived in the area for 21 years and I understand what the complaints are about from the neighborhoods,” Hammill said. “But I personally feel what’s going on is unfair. It’s like they are prosecuting people who really aren’t doing anything wrong.”
What’s going on, and has been going on since January, is proposed zoning changes to the Cheshire Bridge Road corridor, long considered Atlanta’s red light district.
Proposed by gay Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan, the rezoning is an attempt to finally make real a 1999 vision statement that wanted to bring in new development and give the area a facelift that includes stripping out strip joints and other adult businesses.
In 2005, the City Council approved the zoning changes that halted any new adult businesses and ensured new businesses would pay attention to aesthetics, such as landscaping and curb appeal. Businesses such as Inserection and Southern Nights, adult novelty stores popular with many LGBT patrons, were grandfathered in and safe from the zoning changes. Until now.
Wan, a first-tem councilman who took office in 2010, has proposed legislation to force the grandfathered-in non-conforming sex and porn shops out by 2015. Also scrubbed out of business along the thoroughfare would be car washes and auto repair businesses, which fall into non-conforming businesses in the zoning approved by the city as well.
The possible deadline may now be extended until 2017 as Wan and Neighborhood Planning Unit F seek to compromise with businesses. NPU-F includes Cheshire Bridge Road and is made up of Lindridge Martin Manor, Morningside Lenox Park, Piedmont Heights and Virginia Highland
Wan’s legislation, coming during an election year, has angered critics in the LGBT community who say the sex and porn shops are part of gay Atlanta history and Wan is a traitor for wanting to rid the city of them.
“We have customers who come in and say Alex is awful. But no, that’s not true. I don’t think this is a gay thing. This doesn’t impact us right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mute point,” Hammill said.
Wan: More to LGBT community than ‘porn and sex clubs’
Wan is doing what he needs to do to get reelected, Hammill said.
“I wish Alex all the best in the world. But is he just doing his job and representing his people? Is it a witch hunt? I don’t know,” Hammill said. “Every city has to have a red light district. That’s essentially what we are. If a city doesn’t have it, if this element of people don’t have that outlet … and they kind of need an outlet. We do offer some things.”
Hammill also said he and other gay club owners have been approached by Michael Morrison, owner of Inserection, and Galardi South Enterprises, owners of strip club Onyx, to ask for help in making the public understand gay play could be halted if the proposed legislation goes through. Hammill said the gay club owners all want to keep a low profile because their businesses are safe for now.
(Atlanta City Council District 6 council member Alex Wan. File photo)
And Wan said it is time for LGBT people to move beyond advocating for porn and sex shops.
“All of this has become a personal attack on my perceived morals and values and that’s not the case,” Wan said. “This conversation that I’m being a traitor to the LGBT community because of this … If the gay agenda is 24-hour bars and sex clubs, then the truth is I’m not the representative for that. And that’s how this argument seems to be crystallizing.
“This is my trying to honor a community’s vision. At the same time, I kind of take issue with this belief that I’ve turned on my community. Look at what I’ve done over the past three years — the passage of a resolution by the City Council to support same-sex marriage and Mayor Kasim Reed coming out in favor of marriage equality,” Wan said.
“If all of this doesn’t mean anything and all that is important to our community is supporting porn and sex clubs … well, I would hope our community has bigger goals and objectives,” he said. “If I’m going to be judged on the issue of just supporting porn and sex clubs, if that’s how the community feels at large, perhaps there may be a better candidate.”
Jane Rawlings, chair of NPU-F, has lived in the Lindridge Martin Manor since 1988.
“Planning studies not morality studies guide zoning and land use decisions,” she said of complaints to ban adult businesses and others from Cheshire Bridge Road “It is not the job of the NPU to dictate one’s morality. It is the job of the NPU to review and make a recommendation on proposed zoning ordinances and we have done so in this case.”
‘Most liberal street in Atlanta’?
Morrison, owner of Inserection, who is straight and one of Wan’s loudest critics, accuses Wan, among other things, of setting the LGBT movement back 30 years by trying to rid the city of adult businesses.
“This is one of the most liberal streets in Atlanta … and our first openly gay councilman wants to set back the LGBT cause 30 years,” Morrison said. “If you go back down memory lane, this area is where more underground culture and gay clubs came about and when you come up with this kind of legislation that hurts gay businesses, we will lose some of these hard-fought battle grounds.”
Morrison said Inserection is a gay business because it is LGBT people who frequent the store as well as work there.
“Where does he get off becoming the voice of morality? We’re sitting in 2013,” he said.
Wan points out he made sure BJ Roosters, Jungle and Heretic — three of the most popular gay clubs in the city — are safe from proposed rezoning legislation. They are located in a patch of land between the north and south districts of the street set to be rezoned Neighborhood Commercial.
Morrison said while the gay clubs may be safe for now, there is no telling what will happen in the near future if Wan’s legislation is passed.
“I think this legislation is anti-gay and I think it’s anti-black. When Onyx became a black strip club, quite frankly the NIMBYs didn’t want to see black youths in their neighborhoods,” he added.
Morrison voted for Wan in the last election but is now thinking of helping fund another candidate to run against him.
Wan is already busy building his war chest so he can be ready for any opposition, he said.
Auto repair, car washes same as adult entertainment?
Sung Kong, owner of Kong’s Body Repair, a business opened by his father nearly 30 years ago on Cheshire Bridge Road, spits out Wan’s name when speaking about the legislation that would force his business to relocate or close.
Sung Kong, owner of Kong’s Body Repair.
“It’s already unconstitutional why we’re grouped in there with adult businesses,” he said.
“Seven years have passed and nothing changed and now they want to be proactive because they think developers will come,” he said. “This is stupid. I don’t know how else to say it, but it’s stupid.”
Wan said he has tried to help Kong understand that it is not him putting auto repair shops in with adult businesses as non-conforming for the changes outlined in the 1999 study and then approved in 2005 by the City Council.
“From the beginning, the legislation has focused on the objectives of the ‘Neighborhood Commercial’ zoning designation that the city created way back when,” Wan said.
“For obvious reasons, adult businesses are deemed to be incompatible with those objectives, perhaps more because of the proximity to residential. Auto repair stores and car washes are not permitted for different reasons. In broad terms, those uses are considered more appropriate in industrial or higher intensity commercial areas [and] those uses promote automobile usage rather than pedestrian,” he explained.
Developer: zoning proposals set bad precedent
The issue of first allowing businesses to be grandfathered in and then grandfathered out is what deeply disturbs developer Scott Selig. His company, one of the largest developers in the state, owns several acres of land on Cheshire Bridge Road, including the closed Club Life, the Colonnade and the Cheshire Motor Inn. Although Selig’s property is currently safe with recent amendments made to the legislation, he fears Wan is setting a bad precedent.
“What our problem is now is that eight years later they decided they want to take out the businesses that were grandfathered in,” he said. “Any place that has been rezoned and had businesses grandfathered in — and then proposed they be rezoned out … I’ve never even heard it proposed before. I’ve never heard of the government coming and sunsetting out non-conforming businesses.”
It’s true — what Wan is proposing about sunsetting out grandfathered-in businesses has never been done in the city of Atlanta. But the city’s law department tells him it is legal to do so.
“Essentially, as I interpret [city code], it states that a structure that was conforming before, but non-conforming after a change, may still operate as such, but cannot expand. There are also triggers that void that grandfathering such as non-use for more than 12 months,” Wan said.
“The proposed strategy has not been used in Atlanta previously. The City Law Department believes there is Georgia Supreme Court case law (cited in legislation) that grants municipalities authority to amortize out non-conforming uses provided it meets the standard that the time period granted is a reasonable period to recoup the business/property owner’s investment,” he explained.
Neighborhood residents want change
At first, Wan proposed non-conforming businesses get until 2015 to get out; recent amendments approved by NPU-F and to be considered next month by the Zoning Review Board added two more years of amortization.
Rawlings, chair of NPU-F, said it’s time to finally implement what city planners and neighborhood residents and businesses wanted when they put out that 1999 study.
“We would like to see the street redeveloped in a way that is consistent with the vision outlined in the Cheshire Bridge Road Corridor Study published in 1999 while still maintaining its eclectic and diverse nature,” Rawlings said.
“In fact, some of the very voices complaining the loudest about this ordinance are some of the very voices that shaped the Cheshire Bridge Road Corridor Study and the 2005 rezoning of the street,” she added. “It is … my belief that the character and characteristics of a neighborhood should be defined by the community and not for the community.”
A ‘poo plant’ on cheshire bridge?
Interestingly, at the same time NPU-F and the city are considering cleansing adult businesses from Cheshire Bridge Road, a wastewater plant is under construction on city-owned property on Liddell Drive, just off Cheshire Bridge Road.
The project is “lovingly” labeled “PooTank” by the surrounding community, Rawlings said. The purpose of the $35 million plant is to reduce sanitary sewer spills throughout Atlanta and it is being constructed under a federal mandate.
According to reports, the sewer tank will hold 10-million gallons in a raised overflow tank at 2061 Liddell Drive. A pumping station and electrical station will be located at 2001 Cheshire Bridge Road, near the north end of Lenox Road.
In July 2012, Rawlings wrote a letter to Wan on behalf of NPU-F asking him several questions about the “Poo Tank.” In the long list of questions, she noted the wastewater plant is “antithetical to the vision” of the 1999 study.
Wan said he understood the concerns, but without the plant, sewage spills will continue and the city will face federal fines and be “put under a moratorium for development making redevelopment of the Cheshire Bridge corridor more difficult.”
Concerns about smell from the plant were also addressed, with Wan and the city promising the latest technology to “eliminate offensive odors.”
“Plans call for tunneling diluted sewage overflow under Cheshire Bridge Road to the Liddell Road tank when the main system is overcapacity, which is usually about once a month,” according to a July 2012 story on the Lindbergh Lavista blog.
Legal action likely
If the Zoning Review Board (which is the last place the public can be heard) approves Wan’s plan and the legislation goes to the City Council and is passed, it is unlikely businesses along Cheshire Bridge Road will start shutting down in two or even four years.
Legal action is likely with several of the business owners having plenty of cash to fight City Hall to keep their profitable businesses in an area of the city they like and want to be.
“They can’t just come in and take your businesses away from you,” said Selig. “This is really a property rights issue.”