A Long Island City strip club is claiming in its second lawsuit in seven months that the city is trampling its First Amendment rights in a broader effort to rid the city of adult entertainment.
TC Queens Entertainment, owner of the topless nightclub Scandals located in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, claims in the lawsuit filed Jan. 15 in New York State Supreme Court that the city is limiting the number of areas where clubs can set up shop or remain, by first legalizing neighborhoods for adult use, then later whittling away at them through subsequent zoning changes.
“The city has engaged in a systematic campaign to shrink the adult zones,” the suit says, to “play whack-a-mole with the First Amendment.”
The TC Queens lawsuit is an effort to block a Dec. 15 decision by the city Board of Standards and Appeals that makes the Queens Plaza club located at 24-03 Queens Plaza North as currently configured, illegal.
The ruling by BSA gave the Department of Buildings permission to alter the club’s certificate of occupancy, thereby making the 100 percent adult use of the club non-conforming.
TC Queens sued the city, as well as DOB, which filed to change the certificate of occupancy and BSA, which ruled in favor of the DOB filing.
The club owner’s earlier lawsuit, filed in June 2009, was in part a failed attempt to block BSA from hearing the case.
Robin Binder, deputy chief of the city Administrative Law Division, which represents the city in litigation, said the city was confident it would prevail in the litigation.
“Scandals has no right to operate a topless club at a location where adult clubs have been prohibited since 2001,” she said.
Binder added that the change to the certificate of occupancy was not an attack on the club’s rights to free speech.
“The state’s highest court has already ruled that it is not unconstitutional for the city to prohibit topless clubs from areas where people live or from close proximity to a school or house of worship,” she said.
Joan Toro, attorney for TC Queens, said the city was infringing on the free speech rights of the club.
“It is a slippery slope. [Scandals] is now being pushed out a second time,” she said, noting it opened in Queens Plaza in 2002 after being forced out of an earlier location.
The legal tussles began more than a decade ago, after the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1995 pushed through stricter zoning rules limiting where strip clubs could operate.
Because of that law, Scandals was forced to close its previous location at 32-37 Greenpoint Avenue in Long Island City and reopened at the current location with a certificate of occupancy in May 2002 from the DOB permitting adult uses, court papers show.
It is that DOB certificate that the BSA ruled last month could be changed. The city is arguing that the club should never have been issued an adult certificate of occupancy.
That is because in July 2001, the city rezoned a portion of western Queens that included the strip club property, through the Special Long Island City Mixed-Use District. The new district zoning does not permit strip clubs, but the certificate of occupancy was issued in May 2002 despite that. The city says in BSA documents that it was given in error.
The club says in the complaint that after operating for six years without the city issuing any warnings or violations, the DOB said in an October 2008 letter that the club was operating illegally.
The city offered the club the opportunity to change to a so-called 60/40 club, meaning that 60 percent of the floor area would be for non-adult usage, but Scandals balked at that idea saying it was costly and impractical.
And Scandals was not the only strip club in Queens Plaza to attract the attention of the DOB. In July 2009, the agency closed Citiscapes, a strip club at 24-02 Queens Plaza South, issuing a partial vacate order claiming that the club did not have proper exits. The club owner could not immediately be reached for comment.