EIGHT PARKING SPOTS. Thats what the war over Ricks strip club is about? A decade of neighborhood battles, thousands in legal fees, thousands more in political contributions? Just to rezone a dab of Lake City into an accessory parking lot?
At least $33,000 in City Council campaign donations are linked to the club. According to interviews and public documents, the club found a pair of supporters in council members Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, who got most of those donations. They persevered in the face of a point-by-point rezone rebuttal by other council members and persuasive evidence that a land-use change was unwarranted.
As for those eight paltry parking spots, theyre gold platedhighly prized by a club so seriously in need of parking it has been willing to spend a lot of effort on a rezone. Ricks needs to accommodate a big nude-dance audience and an even bigger crowd thats expected to arrive once a nearly $200,000 expansion is completed on Lake City Way Northeast. As City Council staffer Bob Morgan explained recently, Ricks is legally required to have 34 parking spaces. It now has 46 and will add 15 after the remodel. Yet at peak hours, even those 61 spaces likely wont be enough. It turns out, as well, that in January, about the time the club renewed its effort to rezone the small lot, it lost 30 parking spaces it was using at night on a lot next door.
Former Gov. Albert D. Rosellini owns the adjoining property and was letting the spaces to club owner and friend Frank Colacurcio Jr. But use of Rosellinis land for the nighttime parking is illegal, the city says. So even with the 15 added remodel slots and eight more from the rezone, Ricks ends up with a net loss of parking spaces for its remodeled club. Eight is not enough, but no less crucial.
In reconstructing the story behind the rezone, Seattle Weekly found a lot of thought-provoking coincidences. No evidence indicates a direct link between campaign contributions and the behavior of City Council members. But no one could be blamed for wondering if there is one.
IT SEEMS CURIOUS, for example, that no one told the City Council about the pending remodel. Not until they approved the parking-lot rezone, council members say, did they hear about the Ricks expansion plan. A city permit application had been on file since Januaryavailable for all the world to see online at the citys Department of Design, Construction, and Land Use (DCLU) Web site. Despite all the meetings, calls, e-mails, and document exchanges between the council and DCLU over the rezone, no one seems to have brought up the pending expansion. Yet it is the most likely motive behind all that rezone lobbying and political cash flowsome of it possibly in violation of city campaign law.
Says DCLU spokesperson Alan Justad: Because this type of application [the expansion] does not require council approval or review, we did not inform the council of the fact that it was under review. At an earlier airing of the rezone issue before a hearing examiner, he says, the DCLU planner did state that the owner was planning to submit an application to expand but that it would not include the rezone area. City Council staffer Morgan, however, has reviewed the hearing tape and says the expansion was not part of the record. Justad is not aware of the council ever asking DCLU about the expansion project.
Other important details of the dispute seemed to have gotten lost along the way, as well, such as the issue of crime at the club and the fact the club was making itself better known to elected and other officials at City Hall.
ONGOING SINCE 1989, the rezone war ended a month ago in the wake of the heady rush of campaign contributions. By a 5-4 vote, the council reversed decisions by both a hearing examiner and city zoning inspectors and granted a parking lot land-use change from residential to commercial. That incensed neighbors, who had tired of the noise, lights, sex acts, nudity, and rubbers in their surroundings. They thought they had won this one long agowhen previous councils turned down the rezone twice.
But neighbors didnt have the City Hall access the club had, through Rosellini and Seattle attorney Gil Levy. Levy, a regular City Hall campaign donor and criminal defense attorney, represents both Rosellini, the former governor, and the club, which is operated by Frank Colacurcio Jr. Both Rosellini and Colacurcio were fighting similar city parking disputes at their adjoining Lake City properties. Levy also represents Colacurcio on legal and regulatory issues related to the strip trade. Colacurcio operates four nude clubs in the region and is regularly embroiled in freedom-of-expression cases, for example.
Rosellini, whose property includes a gas station and car wash next door to the club, was governor from 1957 to 1965 and is an old friend of the Colacurcio family. Now 93, he says it was a coincidence that he bought the gas station property next to the clubI didnt know who owned it when I bought itand says hes not real familiar with Colacurcios dispute. He leaves those kinds of details to the gas stations manager.
But Rosellini was on the council mailing list in the Ricks dispute and was sent half a dozen city notices regarding the rezone. He also personally wrote a letter to the council in support of the nudie club. Levy, meanwhile, literally worked both sides of the property line for his two clients and used Rosellinis parking dispute to help leverage passage of Colacurcios rezone.
And the club, Levy, and Rosellini all contributed heavily during this four-year election cycle to City Council campaigns, especially to those of Nicastro and Wills. Rosellini gave $600 to Nicastro and $450 to Wills. Levy gave Nicastro $650 and Wills $650. Colacurcio, along with relatives, employees, and friends, gave $17,000 to Nicastro and $8,455 to Wills. Council member Jim Compton, who also voted for the rezone, received $600 from Levy, $200 from Rosellini, and $6,500 from 10 other club-related donors. They all say such giving was not organized, but motivated by their intent to help worthy politicians get re-elected.
Similarly, council members say their favorable votes were not based on money or political largesse. They call Ricks a legitimate business. It doesnt seem to matter that, as Levy concedes, during one two-year period police were called to the club 144 times124 of them for adult-entertainment violations such as sexual contact between dancers and customers, the others for prostitution, drugs, theft, assault, and child abuse. Apparently, the council majority agreed with Levys interpretation of that record: The frequent police activity was no big deal because most of the violations occurred inside the club, he said, and have zero impact on the neighborhood.
That claim by Levy was contained in a four-page Jan. 27 letter he delivered by messenger to council offices. He was making his case for the council to overturn the parking rezone that earlier had been rejected by DCLU and again on Dec. 11, 2002, by a city hearing examiner. Levy argued that the recent parking ban at Governor Rosellinis property changed the parking equation at Ricks, thus meriting reconsideration. Levy also offered up a strange argument for the rezone.
The allowance of additional parking [at Ricks] does not mean that more customers will patronize the nightclub, he wrote, and disallowance does not mean that fewer customers will patronize the nightclub. As was shown in the applicants parking study, in the absence of on-site parking, nightclub customers simply take advantage of whatever else is available in the neighborhood. It was almost as if the extra parking the club has so dearly fought for wasnt even needed. All things considered, that seemed like a good opportunity for the council to reject the rezone.
ON MARCH 11, Nicastro sent a letter to DCLU director Diane Sugimura saying her committee had decided it needed more information. Nicastro also requested that Levys letter be added to DCLUs files. She also asked the DCLU to submit any reasonable conditions that DCLU can identify to further mitigate noise, light, and glare at the rezone site, beyond those previously recommended.
In a March 31 response, Sugimura provided the information and told Nicastro that evidence of noise, light, and glare impacts from the existing use of the parking lot has been well documented by the neighbors and not disputed by the applicant and would be adverse to the surrounding residential uses. She allowed that a study could be undertaken to establish appropriate and reasonable mitigation of noise. Other likely mitigation measures could include a fence, plantings, and limited hours of use.
But, Sugimura added, such mitigation was never considered by DCLU because we determined the property did not meet the criteria [for rezoning] ... foreclosing any opportunity for use of the property for parking. If the rezone were approved, she noted, consultation with the police department would be appropriate considering the history of activity at the site.
Among the documents Sugimura included to Nicastro was a property deed for Ricks, dated Dec. 17, 2002, signed by Colacurcio. Nicastro should have had no trouble recognizing the name. Colacurcio was among the four people who illegally gave her a total of $2,000 in cash contributions at a Nov. 13, 2002, fund-raiser for her re-election campaign. It was an especially good money day. Besides Colacurcio, who gave $650, his wife, Teena, gave $650, and friend and associate Dean Reiber, a nightclub owner from El Paso, gave $600. Seven other Colacurcio partners, employees, and their relatives gave another $4,300. And the governor, Rosellini, handed over $600 that day.
However, Colacurcio and three others paid in cash, all in excess of the $60 cash donation limit. Nicastros staff later informed her about the illegal contributions, and they were returned Nov. 22. Nicastro also reported the violation to the citys Ethics and Elections Commission. In December, it dismissed the case, saying Nicastro took the right steps.
BUT AS THE REZONE application moved along, Colacurcio, et al., returned with more donations. On Jan. 24, he gave Nicastro $650, the maximum allowed. And on Feb. 7, he tried to give her $650 more, exceeding the legal limit; his second donation was returned.
On June 6 and 7, Colacurcios crowd poured more money into Nicastros campaign, with 17 friends, relatives, and employees giving $10,750. In March, 10 people, many of the same Colacurcio folks who gave to Nicastro, gave $6,500 to Wills. In May, 10, including Frank and Teena, gave $6,500 to Compton.
On June 10, Nicastro and Wills issued their report recommending the rezone for full council passage. Earlier, Wills had unexpectedly dropped in to a meeting of the Land Use Committee, of which shes not a member, and voted for the rezone; she and Nicastro were in favor, while Margaret Pageler and Richard Conlin voted against. The measure would have received a 2-1 do-not-pass vote without Wills ballot; it resulted instead in a split recommendation to the full council and the issuance of a Divided Report authored by Wills and Nicastro and rebutted by Pageler and Conlin.
In their argument for passage, Nicastro and Wills recommended the addition of such conditions as restricting the lot for employee use, requiring a parking attendant at night, and building a new wall and landscape buffer. They said there was no practical use of the site other than for parking and that parking was drastically needed at the club in part because of a Notice of Violation concerning the shared parking agreement with Rosellini. The site met rezone criteria, they argued, and the new conditions would mitigate neighborhood impact.
Conlin and Pageler disagreed down the line. The site indeed could be used for residential development, they argued, and a rezone was inconsistent with neighborhood plans. The new conditions would be difficult if not impossible to enforce, they said: Neighbors have testified that patrons of the nightclub use the back of the parking lot as a toilet, fighting ring, and area for illegal activities, and that any kind of wall or barrier could not prevent cans and bottles from being thrown into their yards, or the sounds of drunken revelers shouting and crashing about. Opening this lot to accessory parking would help to bring these impacts closer to the adjacent single-family area.
THEY ADDED A STINGING note: The Hearing Examiner has found that no changed circumstances were shown in this case [compared to earlier rezone attempts]. We feel the petitioner has disregarded the Citys repeated determination that this single-family-zoned lot cannot appropriately be converted to accessory use parking for the adjacent commercial use.
Six days later, June 16, they were out-voted. Pageler, Conlin, Nick Licata, and Peter Steinbrueck voted against. Jan Drago and Richard McIver joined Compton, Wills, and Nicastro in favor.
Two days later, by coincidence, says a DCLU spokesperson, the clubs expansion permit was approved. Work has already begun to extend the club onto property Colacurcio owns on the north side of Ricks. With 286 seats, it is expected to be the biggest nude-dance club around. With eight prized parking spots, to boot.