At this point, Alex Wan is pretty tired of being called anti-gay.
The Atlanta City Council’s only gay member (to be on the safe side, make that openly gay member) has spent the past few months being raked over the coals for his proposed ordinance to clean up Cheshire Bridge Road, a proposal he says has been largely misunderstood. But he concedes that the legal tool he’d hoped to use in reshaping the gritty street is unavoidably controversial because it hasn’t been used successfully before in Atlanta.
“This isn’t Alex Wan imposing his vision for what this area should look like,” he says. “I’m trying to honor the redevelopment plan that was approved for this street back in 1999 and which is supported by a majority of the existing businesses and nearby residents.”
The ruckus began in earnest in January, when Wan unveiled a proposal before the city’s Zoning Review Board that called for Cheshire Bridge businesses that don’t conform with the approved guidelines of the old redevelopment plan to either shape up or ship out. At the time, the ZRB deferred action.
The 1999 plan called for Cheshire Bridge—historically, home to an eccentric patchwork of restaurants, adult-entertainment emporiums, antique stores and quasi-industrial properties—to become a friendlier place for neighborhood commercial uses such as grocery stores and boutiques, and to encourage pedestrian traffic.
Despite strong community support, that blueprint has never been realized, Wan says, largely because of the continued presence of less-than-desirable businesses. So, the original version of his proposal took aim at auto-repair shops, car washes and strip clubs, mandating that such “non-conforming uses” would have two years to come into compliance or leave the corridor.
Criticism was immediate, with Wan accused of trying to close down popular gay nightclubs like The Jungle and The Heretic. But Wan says those critics—many of whom apparently got their talking points from the Atlanta Progressive News blog—were misinformed, in that his measure specifically would allow bars and nightclubs. Also, because of a quirk in the city’s zoning maps, the affected portions of the Cheshire Bridge corridor do not include the short stretch between the Southern Railway tracks and Peachtree Creek that contains both The Jungle and The Heretic.
Wan got a boost in mid-April, when Neighborhood Planning Unit F enthusiastically voted to support his plan. But he continued to hear strong opposition and, earlier this month, when he returned to the ZRB, the councilman had warily scaled back his proposal to affect only adult business and to extend the transition deadline from 2015 to 2018. Wan estimates that his updated ordinance calls for the ouster of perhaps ten businesses, likely including the Onyx strip club and the Inserection sex-toy shop. Still, the board narrowly voted to recommend a thumps-down on the plan.
A frustrated Wan notes that only one of the many people who spoke against his proposal at the ZRB hearing actually lives in the area. But he also says some of the opponents, such as developer and Cheshire Bridge landlord Scott Selig, are concerned that his efforts could establish a harmful precedent with regard to private property rights.
“Amortization of non-conforming uses has not been done elsewhere in Georgia, so it’s a pretty cutting-edge tool,” says Wan, who adds that it has been used successfully in other states and was vetted by the city’s legal department.
One of the very first actions of the newly formed City of Sandy Springs was to use a similar mechanism to rid itself of a long-standing strip club on Roswell Road. But that effort is mired in court challenges and the club remains open.
So, does Wan intend to retool his proposal again in hopes of winning over critics and building support? No, he says; he plans to submit it to the City Council for consideration and let the chips fall where they may so he can move on.
“I don’t see any reason to hold it,” he says wearily. “It should go for an up-or-down vote.”