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Clean up Cheshire Bridge?

Two ordinances threatening red-light district's adult shops would set a bad precedent for the city

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Note: After this column went to press, Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan introduced new versions of his controversial Cheshire Bridge ordinances which specifically target "adult bookstores, adult motion picture theaters, adult mini-motion picture theaters, and adult entertainment establishments, including adult cabarets." Family-operated businesses like Kong's Body Shop and New Baby Products are no longer affected. If passed, adult businesses would be given five years to adhere to the new zoning restrictions or leave the area. The column below reflects those developments.

For decades, Cheshire Bridge Road has been considered Atlanta's red light district, a bastion of adult video stores, strip clubs, and sex shops. But two ordinances could force those businesses to find a new home.

After months of contentious debate and community meetings, a pair of measures sponsored by Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan will come before the city's Zoning Review Board on May 9. If approved, the rezoning ordinances could help revamp Cheshire Bridge between Piedmont and LaVista roads, a move that many residents and groups from Morningside-Lenox Park and other surrounding communities have long desired.

More likely, the controversial ordinances will set a bad precedent that could have much bigger consequences down the road for neighborhoods across Atlanta. In short: They'll do more harm than good.

The push to improve Cheshire Bridge first started 14 years ago when a task force made up of residents, businesses, and property owners created a plan aimed at revitalizing the area. In 2005, the Atlanta City Council approved special zoning for the area which required future businesses to promote street-front retail and pedestrian activity. New strip clubs, sex shops, and other "non-conforming" businesses were effectively outlawed, but existing ones were "grandfathered" in.

Many nearby residents think that the thoroughfare's seedy reputation has prevented the commercial strip from reaching its full potential and want to rid the road of the adult-oriented businesses. That idea doesn't sit well with the strongest advocates of Cheshire Bridge's nightlife. To them, booting the adult businesses would effectively whitewash the area of its "charm" and unfairly displace longtime establishments in an attempt to create, as one CL commenter put it, a "Norman Rockwell fantasy."

The persistence of nearby residents who wanted to see their vision of a PG-rated Cheshire Bridge come to fruition prompted Wan to propose the two ordinances late last year. If passed, his proposals would force the "non-conforming" businesses, including the strip clubs and sex shops, to either abide by zoning requirements or leave by 2018. Most would struggle to do so considering that their current services aren't exactly ones that, well, attract family-minded customers and window shoppers.

There's no question that the residents in neighboring communities have legitimate concerns. Families don't want to live near strip clubs or raise children within walking distance of peep shows. Property owners blame some businesses for increased crime rates in the area, while other residents regularly gripe about noise from some of the nearby clubs. That's more than understandable.

But Wan's proposals will hurt the corridor now and in the future. By stripping some Cheshire Bridge businesses of their "grandfather" protections, the city would also be making an unprecedented - and legally iffy - move.

"If the council approves and it goes through, you can guarantee that you will have a lawsuit filed," Scott Selig, Vice President of Selig Enterprises and a Cheshire Bridge property owner, tells CL.

The measures also could open the door for other politicians to make similar proposals across the city or state. If the ordinances pass, developers might think twice about investing in certain areas like Cheshire Bridge. And that could dash nearby residents' hopes for attracting more enticing businesses to the area. Why would a developer make an investment in an area where neighborhood associations and city government make decisions to the detriment of Cheshire Bridge's current businesses?

And what happens if those properties, once adult establishments, remain vacant and can't find tenants? That means decreased foot traffic — and fewer customers — for the establishments that conform to current zoning standards. Goodbye, seedy business, hello, empty storefront.

Wan shouldn't be blamed entirely for following through with what voters want from him. And residents should go about this in a smarter way. This plan might have been exactly what the community wanted in 1999, but it's lost some steam over the years. Booting adult businesses may solve one perceived problem, but it opens up the doors to criticism elsewhere — and could undermine the long-term goals for the corridor.

Many nearby residents are left wondering why they don't have the mixed-use development that has revitalized other neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, or even Lindbergh. But it starts with their fundamental approach.

Instead of blaming strip clubs and shops selling adult-novelty items for a stalled community plan, how about uniting commercial property owners to create a community improvement district? What about lobbying the city for more streetscape and sidewalk upgrades? Why not look for other ways to reduce crime and improve the neighborhood?

It's those kinds of solutions — not the eradication of adult establishments in an unfair manner — that will lead to the Cheshire Bridge that residents have long wanted.

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