Calif. Appeal Court Rejects Alcohol Sales at L.A. Gentlemen’s Club

LOS ANGELES — Owners of Little Tokyo Showgirls have every right to free speech but not to sell alcohol, a California appeal court ruled Monday.

Little Tokyo Showgirls, located downtown Los Angeles bordering on the Little Tokyo and Arts District, was designed by owner SP Star Enterprises Inc. to bring in wealthy, VIP-type clientele to the heavily industrial area. At one point the club was a Penthouse-branded gentlemen’s club.

But the 7,000-square-foot club has been road-blocked by the city Planning Commission over the issue of not being able to obtain a liquor license, which was the reason SP Star decided to sue the city.

Without a liquor license, SP Star said, business partner Penthouse bailed from the deal.

On Monday, however, the state Court of Appeal affirmed a Los Angeles Superior Court order that denied a conditional-use permit allowing liquor sales at the club.

In the suit, SP Star said out that if it would sell liquor, it would be required by Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations to limit its entertainment to topless dancing on a stage at least six feet from the nearest patron.

SP Star operators said they had invested more than $1 million in the club, would provide additional security and that the city zoning administrator agreed to grant the permit for one year.

But later, the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and the operators of the Fukui mortuary appealed the zoning administrator’s decision.

Fukui voiced fears that sale of liquor so close to the mortuary would lead to mourners being disturbed. Fukui, which is three blocks from the club, is the site of more than 500 services a year and that they often go into the night in accordance with Japanese-American custom.

City Council members also opposed the permit and a Los Angeles Planning Commission official also testified about the problems with allowing liquor sales at the club, claiming that that “disaster follows if you combined alcohol, testosterone and late hours.”

The Planning Commission official predicted the facility would become a magnet for inmates being released from the Twin Towers county jail a few blocks away and for denizens of the nearby Skid Row area.

Planning Commissioners,3-1, sided with the objectors, with the majority saying the proposed use was inconsistent with the ongoing revitalization of the Little Tokyo and Arts District areas.

In the ruling Monday, justices denied SP Star’s petition to review the lower court’s decision.

“Problems at existing bars support denial of additional permits in the area,” the court ruled. “[T]he testimony and evidence submitted to the [Planning Commission] rationally was related to preservation of the character and integrity of the neighborhood based on current conditions and problems experienced in the area.”

The court distinguished cases involving other forms of commercial speech, striking down laws that gave public officials unfettered discretion over certain activities, including the placement of news racks or compliance with vague moral standards in order to obtain a permit to exhibit motion pictures.

Those cases, the court said, “uniformly involve speech, not on-site sale and consumption of alcohol.”

SP Star, the court wrote, has a permit to engage in protected activity, but has no vested right to make that activity more profitable.