In Minneapolis, it’s legal to open a strip club, as long as it’s downtown and not within 500 feet of a church.

And not within 1,000 feet of a residential zone. And not on Nicollet Mall. And not if another strip club is already on the same side of the block.

Last month, a City Council committee voted down a proposal for Minneapolis nightclub mogul Peter Hafiz to open a Topless Tap House in the Warehouse District, finding it would violate the city’s ordinance by operating a few hundred feet away from 3 Degrees Church, a nondenominational ministry above Pizza Luce.

But the hearing also revived a question that’s been raised many times before by proprietors wishing to open new adult-themed establishments in Minneapolis: Are the city’s restrictions effectively zoning them into extinction?

“I think we have this careful balancing act to not [eliminate] these businesses despite our distaste of them, and be careful to allow them to operate in certain areas,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman at the end of the March 29 hearing. Though Goodman voted against Hafiz’s topless club based on her interpretation of the ordinance, she questioned whether the “bigger problem” lies within the law itself. “It might mean that a change needs to be made.”

Others on the council agree that it may be time to re-examine the ever-shrinking sex district, which is currently home to 16 licensed strip clubs and other sex-oriented businesses.

“I think it’s worth having a look at what rules we’ve passed in previous decades to make sure they still make sense,” said City Council Member Steve Fletcher, whose ward encompasses most of the area where these businesses are legal.

The city’s ordinance restricts adult entertainment businesses — including strip clubs, adult video stores and other businesses primarily trafficking in “sexually oriented” use — to operate only in certain areas of downtown. Within those boundaries, the code places additional buffers around places like churches, schools, child care centers and certain commercial developments.

Nancy Aleksuk, co-pastor for 3 Degrees, said the buffer zone between churches and adult entertainment is important for maintaining a safe path to her church, particularly for women who have previously been in the adult industry or victims of abuse.

But as downtown grows, sex-oriented business owners are running out of space to operate. Beyond the stadiums, government buildings and corporate office skyscrapers, the city’s code leaves only a small patchwork of real estate for these restricted businesses, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

“At some point, it gets limited so much there’s nowhere to go,” said Dennis Johnson, attorney for Hafiz.

Moving clubs downtown

The restrictions on adult businesses date to the mid-1980s, when city inspectors and vice cops were battling with storefront massage parlors and other small shops accused of being fronts for prostitution. In 1985, when a south Minneapolis adult bookstore on Chicago Avenue started hiring dancers, 150 angry neighbors flooded a City Council meeting and accused its members of “accommodating” pornography by not doing enough to stop it.

City leaders found a solution in a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Washington city’s power to rezone all adult theaters to one part of town. The City Council reintroduced a plan that had failed a decade earlier to herd adult-themed businesses to a concentrated area of downtown.

At the time, the North Loop was still an industrial area that would never conjure the word “hipster.” The idea was to funnel these undesirable establishments into low-rent areas that would be easier to monitor and less intrusive to neighborhoods.

The new rules were passed in 1986. Some adult businesses elsewhere were allowed to operate until they moved or closed, but those slowly disappeared over time.

Since the closing of 22nd Avenue Station — a northeast Minneapolis club known by its customers as the Double Deuce — the only remaining adult club operating legally outside of downtown is BJ’s Liquor Lounge on West Broadway. Other businesses with adult products get around the rules by operating as novelty shops in other parts of the city.

Over the past three decades, downtown Minneapolis has transformed. The North Loop, which claims popular strip clubs like Déjà Vu Showgirls, Rick’s Cabaret and Choice Gentleman’s Club, is now also home to some the city’s most desirable condos and hottest restaurants and retailers.

30 years later, new problems

As Hafiz plans to appeal the council committee’s decision regarding its proximity to 3 Degrees, Aleksuk said she will continue to stand for the tradition of keeping a buffer between these businesses and places of worship.

“Whether or not the City Council wants to take that up, that’s up to them,” she said. “This is about churches and other places of worship that put themselves in nontraditional buildings and neighborhoods that are changing.”

Hafiz attorney Johnson countered by saying 3 Degrees made a choice to be downtown, and while a church can choose its location, his client cannot. “I’m a little concerned when someone stands up and says, ‘Jeez, I don’t want to walk past an adult entertainment operation.’ Then why did you put your ministry in downtown Minneapolis, where it’s the only place they can be?” said Johnson.

In interviews, several City Council members have expressed willingness to revisit the restrictions.

City Council Member Jeremy Schroeder, who also voted in favor of 3 Degrees, said he didn’t know if the city code needed to be updated, but the church-strip club conflict definitely raised questions about it.

“These businesses serve a community purpose,” said Schroeder. “How are we going to make sure that they exist and that it’s a fair system for them as well?”

Any decision will be politically unpopular with some groups, and while some council members seem open to the discussion, none has identified strip club-owner rights as a priority.

Fletcher, who wants to make downtown more lively, said he worries condensing these spaces to such specific areas has created “dead blocks” as the neighborhoods have grown around them, in which windowless strip clubs or other adult establishments make some sidewalks uninviting.

“It’s not that I want to get rid of the strip clubs, it’s that I wish we had more vibrant street-level businesses,” Fletcher said.