In Defense of Stripping

The lifting of the city's strip-club moratorium makes for strange bedfellows.

Pigs didn’t fly, and the sun didn’t rise in the west. But there, elbow to elbow in King County Superior Court last week, sat attorneys representing strip-club magnate Roger Forbes and city taxpayers, bosom buddies in an effort by Forbes to open another nude dance club in Seattle.

After almost two decades of staving off people seeking to open new strip clubs, the city finds itself in the awkward spot of defending them, in this case joining with Forbes to uphold city statutes which allow him to open a club across the street from Safeco Field. At the opposing table last Friday sat attorneys for the Seattle Mariners and the publicly-financed Safeco Field, essentially pitting taxpayer against taxpayer. The Mariners maintain that Forbes’ club could harm children and the national pastime (baseball, not burlesque).

In a sense, it’s a case of good vs. evil. But who is who? Safeco’s fans drink beer and ogle Junior and Ichiro. Strip-club fans drink soda pop and root for Peaches and Candy. Which is the larger threat to democracy?

A federal court in 2005 found the city’s strip-club moratorium unconstitutional, thanks to a lawsuit by a would-be club operator, Bob Davis, who’d been refused a permit. (The city officially lifted the moratorium in 2007.) That enabled a new club, Little Darlings, launched recently by Forbes off Westlake Avenue, to join an older Forbes club, Live Girls on First Avenue, both part of his Déjà Vu chain. His third downtown-area club—5,000 square feet with two mezzanine levels—would be located at First Avenue South and Edgar Martinez Drive. As the foul tip flies, that’s exactly 436 feet from the stadium’s main entry, Home Plate Gate.

Another strip joint, which would replace Cyndy’s House of Pancakes on Aurora Avenue North, is planned by legal trailblazer Davis, who is talking about launching a second club as well, on Fifth Avenue downtown. If all the planned clubs are opened, Seattle’s adult cabaret total could rise to eight.

“I wish Roger well,” says Davis, whose nudie-club ventures are financed by the $850,000 he’s collected in two lawsuits against the cities of Seattle and Bothell, and who has just filed a third against the city of Kenmore, seeking similar damages for allegedly thwarting his permit application. “Roger’s got more money than I do, so he can afford to take them on.”

A multimillionaire with homes in Seattle, Tahoe, and Hawaii, Forbes went from operating Seattle porn theaters (such as the old Winter Garden on Third Avenue) in the ’70s to strip clubs in succeeding years, eventually taking an ownership position in the nationwide Déjà Vu nude dance chain. He also operates clubs in Lake Forest Park and Tukwila.

Last October, the Mariners contested Forbes’ SoDo club permit, but a city hearing examiner upheld it in December. Now the Mariners and the state Public Facilities District, which oversees Safeco, have asked Superior Court Judge John Erlick to review the permitting process. The M’s argue that Forbes’ proposed club fails to comply with a provision in the Land Use Code that prohibits strip joints within 800 feet of public parks and open spaces.

The Mariners argue a moral point as well. In a court brief, Mariners attorney Melody McCutcheon notes that approximately 26 million people attended M’s games from 1999 through 2007, and at least 3.6 million were children. “The Mariners have a significant interest in maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere at Safeco Field and its associated public open space areas,” she states. “A strip club in such close proximity…will impair enjoyment of those facilities and will discourage families with children from attending events there.” She further contends the club would violate a city-mandated buffer zone to protect kids from such activity, arguing the stadium qualifies as a park; the hearing examiner found that not to be the case.

On Friday, March 13, both sides were slated to argue a Forbes motion for dismissal of the M’s challenge, but the motion was withdrawn at the last moment. Instead, attorneys haggled over the next steps in the process. Erlick said the case will likely result in a written ruling by this summer. Attorneys have indicated the losing side is likely to appeal, probably delaying Forbes’ opening night.

Meanwhile, Davis, the man whose lawsuit made all this possible, says he isn’t having quite the success he expected as a wannabe strip-club magnate. His girlfriend, who dislikes his business, has bailed on him, says Davis, who once operated Giggles Comedy Club and the Urban Comedy Cafe. And while he helped his mentor Forbes open his newest joint off Westlake, Davis can’t get his own venture off the ground.

Neighbors near Davis’ club-to-be at 105th and Aurora claim the operation would violate zoning provisions by being too close to a school. Davis apparently hadn’t been aware of a small, church-run school nearby. He’s also had to delay his plans for a low-cost remodel of Cyndy’s, adding a stage and modifying the seating for $2,500. (A city planning spokesperson says Davis hasn’t formally requested a building permit.) Records show the property, assessed at $1 million, is still in the name of longtime owner Gae Bowman, with whom Davis says he has a handshake agreement to complete the adult-oriented transformation.

Despite his prior success in court, Davis says he’s not rich. “Most of it has gone to my legal fees,” he says. “I’d much rather have been allowed to open a club years ago than have to go to court. I’d have made a lot more money.”