Arts & Culture

In a win for New Orleans strippers, board opts not to limit French Quarter clubs

The New Orleans City Planning Commission recommended Tuesday against key elements of a plan put forward by some City Council members that would limit and gradually reduce the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street.

Instead, the commission voted 6-0 in favor of a more moderate plan put forward by the planning staff that would authorize 14 “adult live performance venues” to operate in the French Quarter, with additional clubs to be allowed only after going through a stringent review process.

At the time the idea was proposed, there were 14 such clubs operating in the Quarter. Two of those, plus one more just outside the Quarter, closed in recent days after raids by state and local authorities.

The commission’s action represented a win for strip club workers and their advocates, more than 200 of whom showed up at Tuesday’s meeting to oppose a hard cap on the number of clubs.

“I don’t know where you’ve been, but in New Orleans women of the night do not go quietly,” one woman told the commission.

No one spoke in favor of the proposed limit at the meeting, though two people submitted notes saying they supported it.

The city has been contemplating a cap on the number of strip clubs in the Quarter for two years, though nothing has been done.

The latest effort was kicked off in October by Councilwoman Stacy Head, who called on the Planning Commission to hold a hearing on a proposal that would put a hard cap on the number of clubs and limit them to one per block.

But the planning staff pushed back against that proposal. In their report, they said they could find no evidence that the clubs contribute to crime — one of the key arguments that had been made in favor of the limit.

“Staff believes that the nature of Bourbon Street ... is in itself a cause for higher crime because of the concentration of entertainment uses including not only (adult live performance venues) but mostly bars, live performance venues and live entertainment, and the concentration of visitors drawn to these uses in a small geographic area,” according to the staff’s report. “Because of this particular characteristic, staff believes that there is nothing inherent to (adult live performance venues) … that causes crime.”

And even if there were evidence that strip clubs contribute to crime, the planning staff said changing the zoning rules would be an ineffective way of curbing it.

“It’s very difficult to essentially reduce crime through zoning. That’s not what zoning is intended for,” Planning Director Bob Rivers said at the meeting.

The planning staff recommended a less severe cap that would allow up to 14 strip clubs to operate in the area without seeking additional zoning approvals. Any clubs beyond that number would have to get a conditional-use permit, which requires action by the commission and approval by the City Council.

The commission’s vote for that plan is not the end of the issue, however.

Its recommendation now goes back to the City Council, which can choose to accept or reject it. The council can then decide to draft whatever ordinance it likes and vote on it at a later meeting.

The Planning Commission hearing followed recent raids by the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the New Orleans Police Department that temporarily yanked the alcohol licenses of eight strip clubs on and near Bourbon Street. Almost all of those clubs have since settled with ATC, with some agreeing to close permanently.

The latest of those settlements came Tuesday when Hunk Oasis, which had been accused of allowing drugs and lewd acts in its business, reached an agreement with ATC officials just minutes before the hearing on its license was set to begin.

The only club remaining that has not settled with the state agency is Larry Flynt’s Hustler Barely Legal, which has filed a lawsuit arguing the suspension of its liquor license without a hearing violated the company’s due process rights.

The raids sparked outrage among workers at the clubs, who held huge protests in the French Quarter last week.

Throughout Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, strip club workers decried both the raids and the proposal to limit the number of clubs as an attempt to put them all out of business and to sanitize the famously raunchy Bourbon Street and make it family-friendly.

Doing away with strip clubs would essentially be killing the industry that brings in many of the city’s tourists, several dancers argued.

“There is a reason New Orleans is the No. 1 tourist destination in the country,” said Sable Mongold, an entertainer. “See how many people flock here when we’re no different than the strip malls.”

Proponents of putting additional restrictions on the strip clubs have argued that doing so will prevent women from being exploited or made victims of human trafficking. But strip club workers and legal advocates for sex workers said closing the clubs would actually put the women at greater risk.

If officials keep shutting down clubs, “the crime that you seek to stop in the clubs will be found in the streets,” Stephanie Griffith said. “I can’t be drugged and raped in the clubs. … I can be drugged and raped in any bar on Bourbon Street.”