A Christian congregation in the Minneapolis Warehouse District found plenty of sympathy Thursday among some City Council members, who decided that a proposed topless bar was prohibited by a city law requiring sexually oriented establishments be 500 feet from places of religious assembly.
If the full council ratifies the 6-0 vote of the Zoning and Planning Committee, it will block downtown nightclub owner Peter Hafiz from moving forward with his plan to build a "Topless Tap House" at 415 1st Av. N., formerly the Imperial Room.
Hafiz isn't giving up yet. If he's thwarted by the City Council, he will take the dispute to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, said Dennis Johnson, the attorney representing Hafiz. Hafiz set into motion plans to open the bar last fall, but hit a roadblock when city staff determined the site was too close to 3 Degrees Church, a nondenominational ministry at 119 N. 4th St. Hafiz won the first battle earlier this month when the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 5-4 to allow the topless bar to move forward. 3 Degrees appealed to the Zoning and Planning Committee.
During the 45-minute hearing Thursday, former City Council Member Gary Schiff argued on behalf of Hafiz that 3 Degrees Church didn't meet the city's definition of a "religious place of assembly" because it operates out of an office building that also includes a radio station and Pizza Luce.
Comparing Google image searches for "church" and "mosque" to Facebook photos showing drywall and "standard overhead lighting" in 3 Degrees' space, Schiff made the case that the 500-foot rule was created to protect structures specifically designed for worship, and that 3 Degrees Church doesn't qualify under the ordinance language.
City Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose ward includes part of downtown Minneapolis, didn't hide her skepticism of the argument against 3 Degrees. During statements from Johnson, Hafiz's attorney, Goodman chimed in.
"I personally think this line of argument is just not legitimate at all," she said. "Keep making it. You haven't been able to convince me, and I'm empathetic — and sympathetic — to the applicant. But if that's the argument, I don't see how we'd ever agree to that."
Nancy Aleksuk, co-pastor for 3 Degrees, also spoke on behalf of the ministry, saying the church holds weekly services and receives tax exemptions from the state. She said the ministry purposely moved to the Warehouse District in order to "take the gospel" to underserved communities in Minneapolis.
Aleksuk said she's ministered to women who have come out of the adult entertainment industry, and she did not want to subject them to walking by a topless bar on the way to church.
"While I respect the rights of individuals to operate those businesses, and for people to patronize those businesses, there is a downside — and a dark side — to that," she said. "It is uncomfortable for women to feel confronted by that."
After the hearing, Aleksuk said she was pleased by the vote, and worried a decision in the favor of the bar could have had implications for other churches in nontraditional spaces throughout the city.
Johnson, however, said he still doesn't think the council is correctly interpreting its ordinance, and the reaction from some in the hearing focused on the relative value of adult entertainment vs. a church, rather than the language of the law.
"I just disagree with their analysis that this definition can be somehow fashioned to support a ministry on the fourth floor of an office building," he said. "We don't buy that."