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Strip tease: City officials cost the public its voice on a club

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Few things can be said with absolute certainty, but this much certainly can: If a strip club wants to move in, neighbors are going to have something to say about it.

The opportunity to have a formal public hearing about an adults-only club on West Carson Street in the West End came and went, cutting concerned citizens out of an important process. Just how that happened is now a case of he-said-he-said-she-said involving city Councilman Doug Shields and the city's law and planning departments.

In June 2008, Marquise Investments of Elizabeth applied for a conditional use permit for the building at 1635 W. Carson St., formerly a medical office and next-door neighbor to a club for recovering addicts. Five months later, the city Planning Commission denied the request, and that rejection should have been forwarded to City Council. Under normal circumstances, the next step would be a public hearing and then a vote by council.

That didn't happen, and the club's owners appealed the denial to Common Pleas Court, where Judge Joseph James, last March, ordered the city to hold a public hearing. That never happened. Mr. Shields, who was then council president, says both the planning commission and, to a greater extent, the city law department are at fault for failing to advise City Council that action was needed. The law department claims it did, and its advice went unheeded.

Either way, the end result is that Judge James ruled in Marquise's favor and the city appealed, but there's nothing City Council can do now. Residents were robbed of the chance to express their concerns, but could holding a hearing and council vote have made any real difference in the outcome? Perhaps.

Even though council likely would have denied Marquise's application and the club owners would have appealed that, the public proceedings might have provided for more than just venting. The city and all other municipalities lack the authority to prohibit a business based solely on the products or services it provides. What communities can do is impose conditions on businesses that make their presence more palatable to neighbors or, in some cases, leads those businesses to fold up their tents and abandon their plans.

If it had taken up the matter, council might have been able to require a traffic study or a traffic light to control access to the club. And if it had, would the business operators have been willing to spend the money and time necessary to comply? Additionally, council might have been able to provide valid reasons for denying the club's application, reasons that might have found a more receptive audience in court than a complete lack of action on council's part.

Because this ball got dropped, we'll never know.

Although the club's opponents plan to fight on and this match is far from over, the city's bungling of the hearing and approval process cost them a major opportunity to keep what they see as blight from coming to the neighborhood. In this way, these Pittsburghers were poorly served by Pittsburgh officials.

  

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