It is still technically morning, an hour before lunchtime on downtown 14th Stree NW, but a man with a bullhor is calling out the virtues of his red-coated palace called Benny's: Home of the Porno Stars. "Check it out, check it out," he shouts into the mouthpiece, "This is it. No cover charge. We got some fine ladies here."
Even at 11 a.m., 14th Street strains at glitter. Once a city showcase for big-name entertainment, first-run feature films, shopping and dining, it has been D.C.'s celluiod sex center since the early 1960s, spawning a parade of barely dressed flesh which has shimmied along the street, watching the slow death of the area's other commercial enterprises.
But if developers and city officials are reading their crystal ball correctly, downtown 14th Street will not belong to the sex trade much longer. Rapidly rising property property values on lots between K Street and New York Avenue have squeezed the porn shops between existing office buildings to the north, mammoth projects being planned to the south and the convention center to the east. Development experts now believe that the cost of doing business downtown will rise so high that the pornography traders will be forced out. The city, meanwhile, has tried hard to ensure that the resettlement of displaced porn dealers will not be easy and has passed stringent restrictions on locations where new sex-oriented businesses can relocate.
"I'd say that within the next five years you won't recognize it," said zoning lawyer Robert Linowes, of Linowes and Blocher. "It's going to be a general office building district with retail business and shops."
The city sees the same vision. "We expect that it's going to be displaced by new development . . . moving east from Farragut Square," agreed John Fondersmith, chief of the downtown section of the city's office of planning and development. "Tenants will be paying prime prices, and they don't want to see that."
That is The Strip, some call it The Stroll, roughly two blocks long and two blocks square, lined with adult movie theaters and bookstores, nightclubs with nude dancers, and massage parlors quaitly referred to as model studios and escort services.
The 800 block of 14th Street has 16 such establishments, that is including two located on bordering H and I streets. Three movie theaters, four book and video tap stores, five clubs, three massage parlors and their burly hawkers now crowd the sidewalk. An old hotel, the Astoria Arms, has a bookstore and a sex toys supermarket downstairs and an upstairs popular with local prostitutes. Gay bars are furthur south, closer to the bus stations, and to the north, a few bars with nude dancing and peep shows have broken the K Street barrier.
But if developers have their way, these should soon be swept away by a platoon of high-rise office buildings on which construction is planned to start immediately. City officials are hoping then that zoning regulations passed in 1977, which restrict the sex-oriented business from all but commercial areas and from locating close to each other, will make it difficult for porn traders to find new homes.
"I don't think we can prohibit them outright as a matter of law, as a constitutional issue," said Steven Sherm executive director of the zoning commission, "but we can try to control them in such a way that they won't be destructive to the downtown."
Which, according to business and municipal spokesmen, they have obviously been. "The presence of the stip has been a barrier . . . for more constructive uses to take place," said Nate Gross, chief of zoning services for the city's office of planning and development, "But with office buildings at the beginning and the end of it, we may see some redevelopment start to occur." Kirk White, a zoning lawyer with Linowes and Blocher, rattled off a list of buildings targeted for the heart of the porno zone and agreed, saying, "I think things are moving rapidly in that area."
To wit: The American Psychiatric Association plans an office building at 14th and K, at the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, and George Washington University plans a new building for a property the university owns at H and 14th streets, now used for a parking lot. A mixed-use office and retail building is planned for the parking lot surrounding the McPhearson Square Metro stop at 14th and I streets, and another office building is planned for a parking lot at 13th and H.
Most recently, a parking lot at the east side of 14th and H streets was auctioned off in October for a record $9.5 million dollars, representing an $8 million profit to the previous owners, who had bought it just three years earlier. The new owners, the National Food Processors Association, plan to put a 12-story office building there, but the $530-per-square-foot price tag, a record price paid for a downtown property, also equals four times the average assessment of the surrounding buildings, according to Department of Finance the Revenue records. Those prices are a big reason why the skinflicks may flicker out.
For tax purposes, Gross explained, lands are valued according to an average of the sales prices in the surrounding area, and when new owners pay high prices for property in an area, taxes may eventually rise so high the old business are no longer able to afford to stay.
Porno shop owners may also be pushed out because they may be offered more for their property than they can resist. Builders will be able to offer large sums for the property because they can take advantage of the area's zoning, which permits dense commercial development. Although the city would prefer more diverse uses of the land, including hotels, said Gross, developers will probably put up more of the office buildings which bring them the most profit.
That kind of displacement may be aided because most of the sex shop operators do not own their own property, according to the city's tax and occupancy records. Most lease it instead, usually from people who hold the land only for rental income and often not out of commitment to the kind of business that is maintained there.
If developers and the city are certain the sex trade will have to move, many of the porn shop owners themselves don't seem to share their conviction.
Anne Bakalis, whose family owns the Gold Rush nighclub at 823 14th, said she has received inquiries from realtors but rejected them. "I'd like to see it go back to the way it was . . . We put up a beautiful nighclub there before all this sex," she said, "We've had offers, but I've told people we're not interested."
Developers themselves don't seem to know where they will go next. "It's not one of our goals to encourage or discourage that type of activity," said developer Oliver T. Carr Jr., who chaired a year-long study of downtown redevelopment by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a regional business association. "We haven't," he said, "given it any consideration."
John A Wilson, whose Ward 2 encompasses sex trade, said he has paid more attention to the displacement of people there then the businesses. "I have enough proplems figuring out where people in buildings are going to go," he said, "I'm not particularly interested in where they go." a
The city's three-year-old guidelines designed to fight the growth and concentration of sex-oriented businesses will make a new location more difficult to find. The regulations define sexually oriented businesses -- whether videotape stores or massage parlors -- and require all prospective owners to petition the zoning board directly for a license, to ensure strict compliance with zoning laws. The regulations also prohibit porno shops from locating in any but a high density commercial zone. Within those zones, they cannot locate within 600 feet of schools, churches, or homes or within 300 feet of each other.
Restrictions like these, say some city planners privately, may force the sex-trade to seek out the suburbs, where the reception may be more hospital. As it stands, suggestions of their imminent removal from the District has not provoked any public outcry.
"If they're competed out because of the change in area business, so what?" said Coucil member David E. Clarke (D-Ward 1), in a statement representative of the attitude of many city officials, "I won't mourn their displacement." CAPTION: Picture 1, Rising property values may force sex establishments off 14th Street; Picture 2, no caption. Photos by Gary A. Cameron -- The Washington Post