With a packed audience of firefighters, strippers, commercial developers and lawyers, today’s Atlanta City Council meeting provided an unusually rich showcase for how downright weird local policy-making can be.
The firefighters were there only to see some colleagues honored, and left the chamber soon after. The strippers, on the other hand, stayed, but were forced to remain silent until they finally broke into applause when the council took its much-awaited vote on the fate of Cheshire Bridge adult businesses.
In the end, the council voted 9-6 to reject Alex Wan’s proposal to use a legal maneuver so far untested in Georgia in order to shut down a half-dozen strip clubs and adult toy stores on what is arguably Atlanta’s most eccentric thoroughfare.
Frankly, that score makes the issue sound more narrowly decided than it was; off-the-record comments by some of the council members made clear that Wan’s proposal received several votes either as something of a courtesy, so it wouldn’t seem as harsh a defeat, or as a political sop by those who figured it wouldn’t pass anyway. But no council member actually voiced support for the measure—in or out of the meeting.
The promise—or threat—of hours of impassioned public comment was thwarted at the start, as Council President Ceasar Mitchell reminded the audience that they are not allowed to comment on matters related to zoning, a category in which the Cheshire Bridge proposal fell. Under an intended time-saving change made to the city charter a few years back, the public can comment on zoning issues in the early stages, at Neighborhood Planning Unit meetings and before the city’s Zoning Review Board, but not once an ordinance reaches the council.
Still, many opponents of Wan’s proposal let their clothing do their talking for them by wearing black T-shirts with big white letters offering the curious message, “ATL has no urban blight.” Aubrey Villines, attorney for Club Onyx, the largest of the affected strip clubs, later explained that it was a reaction to language in Wan’s proposed ordinance stating that the measure was intended to “deter the spread of urban blight.”
Under Wan’s proposal, as “non-conforming uses,” existing adult businesses along Cheshire Bridge would have until mid-2018 to remain in operation there. He acknowledged that such an ordinance hadn’t been successfully employed in Georgia.
“Yes, it’s a bold new tool that hasn’t been used in Atlanta, but this community has been negatively affected [by these businesses] for more than fourteen years,” since adopting a community development plan in the late ’90s, Wan said in advocating for his proposal. “I believe a five-year amortization period is sufficient time under state and federal law.”
But it soon became obvious that most of his colleagues weren’t convinced that they wouldn’t be opening a legal Pandora’s Box just to rid one neighborhood of unwanted tawdry elements. When Joyce Sheperd, who launched her political career fighting strip clubs on the notorious Stewart Avenue, observed that Wan’s approach seemed “not the fairest way to do it,” it was perhaps unclear whether she meant fair for club owners’ property rights or for residents in parts of town that don’t have the same money and clout as the Morningside homeowners pushing for the ordinance.
Wan was joined in casting yea votes only by Carla Smith of District 1, Keisha Lance Bottoms of District 11, and the three at-large council members, Michael Bond, Aaron Watson and Lamar Willis.
After the lopsided vote, one of the council’s several lawyers explained—off the record, of course—that if Wan’s proposal had passed, it could have undermined the city’s entire zoning code by throwing out the long-standing convention of “grandfathering” businesses that pre-date zoning changes. Such a move could easily make it far more difficult to get financing to open a business, especially in transitioning neighborhoods.
Which likely explains why the commercial development industry had several lobbyists papering the council with leaflets arguing against the proposal. Ultimately, the developers might have had a bigger influence on the outcome than the roomful of strippers.
If such a thing could be believed.