The erection of a large, pink, ugly thing in plain view of Miami city offices is provoking disgust and outrage among some neighbors and city officials. "I'm looking at it right now," exclaims Assistant City Manager John Lindsay, peering out his tenth-story window atop the glimmering Riverside Center. The offending item is a huge sign promising adult videos, leather, toys, novelties, and private video-viewing booths. It belongs to a place called Pleasure Emporium, which, during the next few weeks, will open just a short walk over the Second Avenue bridge from the city building. "I called zoning and building officials to ask them -- and you can put this on the record -- 'How can we shut this place down?'"
Word of the emporium also has drawn the ire of Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez. "What that place does is it, um, it, um, I shouldn't say it destroys a community, but it, it ..."
"It degrades a neighborhood," Sanchez declares, vexed. "And being that it's so close to the city administration building, taking a drive there, you'd probably end up seeing it. It's just no good for the city."
After a flurry of phone calls early this month, Lindsay and Sanchez learned the offending establishment was perfectly legal. In fact for decades the city has allowed adult-entertainment facilities to locate along much of the Miami River, including on the parcel at 224 SW Sixth St.
City officials are not the only ones who are red-faced over the development. For years urban activists have longed to transform the river from subtropical Styx to shimmering stream for city slickers and sophisticated shoppers. The naughty news of Pleasure Emporium's imminent arrival made it recently to the Miami River Commission, whose members, eighteen residents and business people, are responsible for spearheading river revitalization. Commission member Sallye Jude, who operates a historic inn a few blocks from the soon-to-open store, notified her colleagues of the sex shop January 10.
"What's the economic impact of that?" asked commission chairman Bob Parks, but he was kidding.
Jude was not smiling. "How do these things get in without anybody knowing about them?" she complained.
Parks nodded sympathetically. "That's the point," he agreed, and urged his colleagues to air their disapproval at city hall.
Over the past five years, Pleasure Emporium has spawned four outlets. The first, which opened in 1995, is located in a dingy one-story building at 1019 Fifth St. in South Beach. Miami-Dade's appetite for crass concupiscence begat a spiffy and more ample Pleasure Emporium II in 1997 on Le Jeune Road near State Road 836. The walls of its main showroom brim with a cornucopia of dildos (e.g., Classic Dong, Squirty Dinger, Ballsy Super Cock), vibrators (Pink Jelly Climbing Gecko Stimulator), pokers, probes, prodders, butt plugs, gels, oils, whips, chains, leather collars, hoods, ankle restraints, and blow-up dolls, including Felicia Fantasy and Jason Your Male Lover with a "life-like mannequin head and seven-inch vibrating dong." Aisles of a large adjacent showroom are lined with hundreds of videos, organized by genre: straight (e.g., Sex Sluts Volume Four, Horny Housewives, Snatch Adams); gay (Body Shop, Summer Cock Tales, Da Freaky Deaky); lesbian (No Dicks Allowed, Pussy Posse Three, Rage Against the Vibrator); bisexual (Drive Bi, Bi Golly); transsexual/transvestite (Little Orphan Trannie); and bondage (Toilet Hole Bondage Whores). For those who can't wait to get home, eighteen private viewing booths, each equipped with a TV monitor and wastebasket, offer a vast range of videos, three minutes for a dollar. Photocopied notices taped next to each vaultlike station state "One person per booth," "No peeping," "No trolling back and forth." But the friendly male attendant presiding over the area one recent afternoon smiled and said, "Don't worry about that."
A third, smaller shop popped up on Alton Road in 1998. And now, coming to a river near you: Pleasure Emporium III (even though it's the fourth).
The emperor of the budding empire is a South Beach resident named Michael Pulwer. He was out of town and declined to comment on the store, according to manager Joe Schreiner, who waxes profusely about the emporias' virtues. "The clientele are usually very nice people. We get a lot of travelers. We get a lot of locals. It's mostly couples," insists Schreiner, a stocky 48-year-old retired mechanical engineer who sports two gold necklaces and large, round silver-rimmed spectacles. "It's got granite tops on the counter. It's very upscale. That's a quartz floor. It's very well lit. It's going to be very nicely air conditioned. It's going to be a beautiful place."
Downbyriver Miami, Inc., bought the lot and one-story building for $660,000 in September. According to state records, the company president is Renee Feingold, wife of former Miami Beach City Attorney Laurence Feingold, who is the Pleasure Emporium's lawyer. Pulwer also enjoys the expertise of another insider, contractor Daniel Glennon, an ex-City of Miami building inspector who is in charge of preparing the new outlet.
So how did the empire claim its new location under the noses of city officials like John Lindsay and his boss Donald Warshaw? Well, other city officials okayed it, just as they approve dozens of other new enterprises every month. The project gave pause to Patty Castro, administrator of the downtown NET office, when the paperwork came across her desk several months ago. But she called the city's building and zoning director, Juan Gonzalez, who advised her to call the city attorney, who advised her it was a copacetic site for adult entertainment. Castro, a former member of the city's quasi-governmental Downtown Development Authority, says sex shops don't exactly mesh with that group's efforts to promote a classy business district. "That [Pleasure Emporium] throws the balance off a little bit. So I guess we'll have to develop around it," she says with a snicker. "Unless the legal department can come up with something." Which it can't.
Left in the lurch by the legalities, Lindsay, Sanchez, and Jude are poised to assemble a compelling list of indecencies, should they be committed, and present it to the city's nuisance abatement board. "I think it's more than appropriate to ask our police department to at least investigate whether an establishment such as that is complying with all the laws and codes, et cetera, " Lindsay says. "Establishments of that nature historically run into problems with people engaging in illegal activities of a sexual nature."
Sanchez is concerned that overheated sex maniacs, after conducting their business at the emporium, might stroll over to the baseball field one block away, or to José Martí Park, four blocks away. "They're going to walk out of there, and when they're walking out, they're going to be close to a park where kids are going to be playing, where families are going to be walking," warns the commissioner. He notes Centro Mater, a day-care and social-service center, also is nearby.
Sensing the battle has been lost, Sanchez promises a war to stanch the pleasure kingdom. "The zoning ordinance is something that has to be rewritten so that this doesn't happen again," the commissioner vows.
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Such aggressive measures would be obscene, contends Joe Schreiner. "What we will try to do is be the most upbeat, progressive, aggressive, positive type of influence," he pledges, comparing the Pleasure Emporium to an Eckerd drugstore nearby. He also thinks the nuisance notion is nonsense. "As far as being a nuisance for someone, I would say, you know, if you don't want milk or bread then don't stop at that [milk and bread] store to buy it," he reasons. "And if you don't want really nice lingerie, or leather, or lubricants, or whatever else that might tweak your fancy for a second between you and your consenting partner, your wife, your husband, then don't stop here."
Nor should you stop if you're not interested in the sixteen video booths this store will provide. And don't stop, Schreiner says, if you want to fit more than one person in a viewing station. He insists his personnel will strictly enforce the one-body-per-booth rule. But what if that one individual, you know, tries to find his glory in there? "I wouldn't say it never happens," the manager confesses. "I very strongly discourage it. I really frown on it," he continues. "I don't know if it's illegal, but it's certainly against our policy. I really want this to be upscale."