The City Can't Decide If Sex Clubs Are Legal

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 23 | Posted Jul. 26, 2011

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Ryan Strand

Swing and a miss: Trapeze, a swingers club in Fishtown, has been shut down - for now.

Save for a pizza shop and laundromat, the 2500 block of Salmon Street in Fishtown is fairly residential. And despite the roar of I-95 just a block away, the street remains relatively quiet. There’s another business on the block, but you might not notice it from the outside. For one, it’s windowless. The dull black awning, which used to read “Trapeze,” sits weathered. It’s the only remaining sign that this used to be a swingers club.

Vacant since 2007, Trapeze is businessman Alan Mostow’s third and most embattled sex club. A client of the industry since the ’80s, Mostow co-owns and operates two other Trapezes (one in Atlanta, Ga.; the other in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) with business partner Dennis Freeland. But only the Philadelphia location has faced legal problems this serious, and for this long—Mostow has spent the last four years battling the city over the club’s legality.

“If I opened up a business and people didn’t come, then I’m out of luck,” says Mostow, who remembers being asked by a Philly cop—and client—in the early 2000s if he would expand into the North. “But I obeyed the law. I ran a 100 percent private club where couples and singles could come … be in a safe environment and have a good meal.”

The club was apparently a hit. In its eight months in business, Trapeze attracted more than 1,000 members and was taking business away from the Pleasure Garden, a club at 61st and Passyunk (which a former club member calls the “Motel 6 to Trapeze’s Crown Plaza”). So, naturally, Mostow would like to reopen. But he still doesn’t know if he legally can until the city answers the question lingering on everyone’s minds: Are Philadelphians allowed to have sex anywhere besides their own homes?

Even the short answer is: It’s complicated.

Philly grants permits for all sorts of vices—bathhouses, massage parlors, strip clubs, burlesque establishments—and there’s nothing in city code that prohibits swingers. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that swingers clubs didn’t make their way in the zoning code at some point, considering that the code actually defines specific sexual activities and situations: “Human genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal”; “Fondling or other erotic touching of human genitals, pubic region, buttocks or female breasts;” and so on. All these definitions are used to legitimize the city’s hedonism, but make no mention of swinging.

“The Philadelphia code is what’s called a permissive code,” says a city official—who requested anonymity—of the city’s interpretation of its own code. “That means that if it’s not officially permitted, it’s basically, by inference, not permitted.”

Attorney Kenneth Young—who represents Mostow and Freeland and who had previously represented Club Kama Sutra during that swingers club’s losing battle with the city (the South Street location was shut down by L&I in 2006 because it was operating with a restaurant license)—disagrees. “Permissive code is the biggest bunch of crap,” he says. “Even if you take that position, it’s invalid because [Trapeze] is a private organization. You have to join and become a member. This is a clubhouse and social affairs hall. If they want to have meetings there and half the people start having sex with each other, well, that’s fine because the primary purpose of the clubhouse is to be private, and sex isn’t illegal.”

The 2533 Salmon St. address had been zoned as a “meeting room, social affairs and clubhouse for a literary association” for decades, but only recently had anyone really been paying attention. In the ’90s, it converted from a club for immigrants—similar to what RUBA on Green Street once was—to an after-hours hot spot called Tribecca. And that’s when the complaints began.

Tribecca argued then, as Trapeze argues now, that any and all private-use permits allow members to remain in private and do whatever they want. “[Trapeze] was zoned as a literary club, which gives it a private-club license,” Young says. “What goes on in a private club is private as long as it doesn’t violate any laws.”

Mostow maintains he wasn’t disturbing anyone, either. “We didn’t have any gawky signs, we didn’t paint the building hot pink,” he says. “And except for one neighbor, we had no problems. We contributed to neighbors whose kids were Boy Scouts, we cleaned up and down the street … we took as much pride as the next person on the block.”

But some in the area see it a bit differently. One neighbor told PW, “They’d get started at two, three in the afternoon sometimes. My kids would be out riding bikes, then come inside and ask me who these people were.” The neighbor says participants showed up in scant leather outfits. “I’d just say [to my kids], those are bad people, don’t go near them.”

Complaints mounted, and Trapeze was served with two cease-and-desist notices, which confused clientele (some of whom came from hundreds of miles away) and hurt business. In addition to noise complaints, neighbors pleaded with their representatives, such as state Rep. Mike O’Brien and Ward Leader Margaret Rzepski, to help them get rid of the establishment. And in August 2007, just eight months after opening its doors, L&I served its final notice to Trapeze, shuttering the club until further notice.

 

The showdown began with the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments, which regulates city development and property uses.

On Oct. 4, 2007, Mostow and Freeland’s attorneys began filing applications for new permits, which the ZBA denied. The city claimed the application was less than truthful, since it did not mention sex. Five days later, another application was filed, and again denied due to “vagueness.”

So Mostow and Freeland agreed to come clean, so long as the city issued them a new permit. “They wanted a permit that says you’re allowed to have sexual activity,” says Young. But the ZBA passed the issue off, saying, “it was beyond their authority to clarify” if a private clubhouse is permitted to allow sexual activity. “My clients took issue with the fact that the Zoning Board wouldn’t define what the permit was.”

After two years of legal arguments, in February 2009, the ZBA finally offered a negotiated permit. It’d be for the application of a private club for “lawful” activities “as permitted under the Philadelphia code”—but swinging and sexual intercourse still weren’t mentioned. Mostow and his attorneys worried the city was setting a trap to kick them out for good.

In later court documents, the ZBA would explicitly state the appeal “did not address the question of whether a private club for engaging in noncommercialized sexual activity is permitted under the Philadelphia Code.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 23 of 23
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1. Ballz97FM said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 02:20PM

“Where does one apply for the license for “Human genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal.” I need one of those for my house.

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2. Anonymous said... on Jun 29, 2011 at 10:45PM

“PG was the one to get them all closed because they couldn't survive with a good club open. They are paying to be open. Pay to play lives in Philadelphia.”

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3. xxx said... on Jun 30, 2011 at 10:16AM

“there are strip clubs all over this city. there are "massage parlours" all over this city. there are escort services that operate all over this city. there is no reason this guy shouldn't be allowed to run a swingers club.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jun 30, 2011 at 03:49PM

“The biggest problem with Trapeze was the location in a neighborhood with kids. Very public location with neighbors sitting in lawn chairs watching "patrons" come and go. Patrons that were drunk and lude on leaving. The closing had nothing to do with the Pleasure Garden that is located in the middle of nowhere in south west Philadelphia. Everything is private even the parking lot. The Trapeze owner just picked a bad location not knowing the area or knowing the neighborhood Association. Not something I would want in my neighborhood and I'm ok with adults doing what they want to do. I've been to both clubs and BOTH were very upscale places. Each had good and bad.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:09AM

“i'm with you anonymous, perhaps a neighborhood isn't the most logical spot for a swingers club, but it's also not ideal for bars, and i'm not sure where you live, but i've lived across the street from several bars in my life and--guess what? the patrons, upon leaving, are very often drunk and lewd.

i've woken up to someone's puke on my doorstep more than once, i've been awoken by fights between drunken assholes, the police being called to the scene, and not to mention to broken bottles, cigarette butts, and, when there was a pizza shop at the corner, half-eaten slices of pizza all over the sidewalk. if i didn't like it, i could've moved to the burbs.

anyway...by your logic, every neighborhood bar in philly should be shut down and relocated to some remote part of SW philly. um, ok. well, L&I clearly isn't going to do that, so they should respect the private social club status this location has and let the guy do his business.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:26AM

“I think having a regular local bar can be an issue. Why many have been closed down as nuisance bars by neighbors. It's up to the owners / mangers to keep their patrons under control. You don't move next to a bar expecting things to be quiet n perfect. But, it's a whole other story when something is moving into your neighborhood. I know for years that location when it was Tribecca was closed a few times due to issues and then lost their liquor licence. A regular place is a problem but when you add a "sex club" into a neighborhood now that's a whole new beast. I'm assuming poster #5 you don't have kids? Explain why the half naked people are coming and going. I don't care how much they clean the block or how many flowers they plant. You have the hardcore fishtown peeps. You don't mess with those folks. Wow they will bring on the pitch forks and torches. They will sit there with video cameras putting your face online. I think anything sexual should have it's own area of the city.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2011 at 10:32AM

“I believe the city already has certain areas of the city set up as such. South west is a whole strip of sex. Then you have where Penthouse is located off the beaten path. Most strip clubs in center city have closed or the ones left are grandfathered in. I personally love the Euro way of doing it with an area set up for just sex, red light area.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jul 3, 2011 at 03:03PM

“I have lived in the area for a large portion of my life. I have seen just about everything happen in that corridor stretch of 95 between Lehigh & York .Hookers giving sex ,junkies doing drugs ,people using it as thier personal toilet yes even doing #2 lol. I did see a huge decrease in that activity when Trapeze was open .I assume they had outside security because I witnessed a guy stopping people from pulling in to get a quickie ,and also seen him stop vandals and graffiti artist from defacing and ruining property. I live by the law of let live and live maybe if they set up a vallet drop off only it would eliminate neighbors seeing the patrons at all. Then no neighbors life would be interrupted what so ever.or maybe the city can fence off the lot put in a guard and make a profit to help rebuild the highways. In anycase I don't really think the city or anyone else should be giving them a hard time .the people who are in that lifestyle are very private for the most part ...............”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 3, 2011 at 03:10PM

“continued from above ........... So I don't see them making big seens outside of the private club. Does anyone have proof of the alleged activities which bothered them so much.I know that there was and still is a visible difference from when they were open till now and it's not for the better . I say bring it back give them a chance to show they can work with the neighbors and solve any problems that need to be addressed .This way everyone benifits from the reopening of trapeze”

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10. Oh Tribecca... said... on Jul 3, 2011 at 05:15PM

“I know this doesn't address the legal aspect of this, but as far as the neighbors are concerned, why don't they use the entrance on the other side (Emory St.)? That was the entrance to Tribecca and was used so that the neighbors were not disturbed. There were very few neighbors to be bothered. If a loud popular after-hours could keep the neighbors satiated, I'm sure these guys can.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2011 at 12:11AM

“Thank you so much for exposing the truth.I have been waiting for this club to open back up. Nothing wrong with 2 clubs of fun in this city. God knows we sure need some. The zoning board is not looking at the bigger picture. Revenue! People in the lifestyle will spend their money if they feel the town will welcome them if not they will go over both bridges and spend their money.There are more people giving parties on the weekly than one cares to imagine .That's why I can't understand why people are getting so excited about nothing. Most of the people they put down just happen to be their neighbors. friends relatives ,bosses, ect, ect,ect. I have met many people along the way in my 7 year adventure. These people that have nothing better to do need to volunteer for street clean up, gun control, drug control, school bus patrol, underage drinking patrol.Stop picking on consenting adults that know exactly what they are done ,who do it well and have FUN doing it I support Alan Mostow and”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2011 at 12:25AM

“continued from above.and his team 100%.BTW they used the Emory St side on the building permit didn't they? Maybe that should be the front door address if it worked for Tribecca.

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13. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2011 at 12:46PM

“its ashame that grown adults cant have a place to go and have a nice time. i was one of the first members of cks, and we had fun on south st. you should come to jersey close to philly and i,ll be there. good luck.you have the support of trum members and friends.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jul 6, 2011 at 11:20AM

“I am fine with clubs like this too but not in my neighborhood.... I currently live in this area and I don't want it and I would bet that most all the neighbors in that area (who will not be frequenting that type of establishment) feel the same way. So guess what, too bad, we don't want it. The REAL problem is that (unlike this possible business type) no other real "good" business over there will do well enough to stay afloat. Until well..., there is more going on here & some neighbors just die and prop values increas (and then other neighbors sell homes to cash in), no other types of businesses can survive. A lot of neighbors in this area are well against ANY kinda of new business in the area and well because of it, there is the possibility of one like this coming in again. They need to accept change in general and allow their surroundings to be developed in some ways which will increase the value here and allow other business to actually survive here.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jul 6, 2011 at 03:12PM

“AFTER READING ALL OF THE ABOVE...
PROBLEM SOLVED MOVE TRAP TO NJ
EVEN BETTER YET.... MOVE IT TO ATLANTIC CITY If the owners got soooo much money, just buy another place in another city that does not give a crap. Hey they can just buy a Motel 6 and put a nightclub next door. LOL ha ha Then there won't be ANY issues with anyone.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 08:09PM

“This goes out to anonymous 15 from above DON'T BE SCARED your precious little club the mushroom garden may survive when Trapeze reopens ..........”

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17. Anonymous said... on Aug 12, 2011 at 02:43PM

“I welcome the oppurtunity to visit a club that has open arms for all and does not have a queen that picks and chooses who may enter her domain. Bring it on Trapeze! Surely the only dismal club that currently exists in the area could use some competition.”

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18. Trapeze Member said... on Sep 4, 2011 at 07:06AM

“How does one club still exist while another is shut down....no in fact 3 other's were shut down.....CKS, The Retreat, and Trapeze? And the license the "open" club falls under from what I understand is a Caberet license which strictly forbids sexual contract. I'll tell you PAYOLA that's how so perhaps someone should be investigating why that situation exists! Want a NEWS story go after that one since the "open" club is the exact same model that Trapeze was a swinger's club where SEX between consenting adults takes place inside. Adult entertainment license's are more restrictive than club license's so how is it even possible for the "OTHER" club to still be open years after the other 3 clubs were closed? Interesting question isn't it? And don't even tell me that Trapeze started at 2 or 3 pm in the afternoon that did NOT happen that club didn't open until 9 pm and club members showed up between 9 and 10 pm so that is a complete fabrication. Al please re-open Trapeze!”

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19. Anonymous said... on Apr 8, 2012 at 02:30AM

“It's re opened and it's a CRAP-TRAP, place blows, not sure why they even bothered to spend the money. Nothing world famous about that place. We stopped going to the garden due to some of the staff and just to find out they were fired and now working at the re-opened Trap. Glad to know they cleaned the druggie trash out of the garden, as we will be going back there. The Trap Location is worse than it was when they were open before. NOT parking my car next to dumpsters and crack heads. WOW for people with 2 other locations, I have heard so much about, they really lowered the standards in every way on the Philly location.”

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20. Vern said... on May 1, 2012 at 01:39PM

“I am surprised such places are allowed to open in this country. Rather decadent.”

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21. Anonymous said... on May 24, 2012 at 11:47PM

“Place is up for sale 2533-35 SALMON ST google check the listing and owes back taxes. Amazing to see what they paid, what they are selling for and after renovations were made 2 times. Plus city legal fees added into that... Stupid move they will never recoup that loss. Neighbors are gonna go nuts again this summer when 1/2 naked drunks are all out front.”

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22. Anonymous said... on Nov 12, 2012 at 11:23AM

“TRAPEZE IS CLOSED AS OF 11/8/2012”

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23. Anonymous said... on Jan 3, 2013 at 03:56PM

“Excuse me, but aren't the Free Masons Lodge all Private exclusively. And no one in the government or in the whole world is aloud to know what is going on in there lodges because there private. What is going on here? I think there's a double standard here going on.”

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