Changing Skyline: How City Hall is helping porn peddler

City officials approved adding a second-floor stage for nude dancing and one-on-one booths at the porno house at 22d and Market. A residents' group has appealed.
City officials approved adding a second-floor stage for nude dancing and one-on-one booths at the porno house at 22d and Market. A residents' group has appealed.
Posted: August 13, 2010

Porn films are everywhere these days. On the Internet. On television screens. In hotel rooms. At bachelor parties. (And probably at bachelorette events, too.) The one place you don't expect to find hard-core flicks anymore is at a movie theater, especially one in a blossoming Center City residential district.

The Forum Theater, 2208 Market St., is infamous for being among the last extant porno houses in Philadelphia, an almost-quaint vestige of the block's skid-row days. It has lingered despite the easy availability of sex films on the Web, despite the encroachment of upscale condos on nearby streets - despite the opening of a celebrated public high school on the next block north. Yet, just when it seemed the Forum's days were numbered, it was cleared for expansion by the city's own Zoning Board of Adjustment and planning department staff.

They probably think they were being pro-business.

The Forum, whose marquee boasts showings of such cinematic works as Hot Girls in Tight Jeans and Busty Lifeguard, would right now be featuring live nude dancers on a deluxe new second-floor stage - along with private, one-on-one "booth sessions" - if the Center City Residents Association hadn't stepped in to challenge the zoning board's permissive attitude.

The battle is not going well, however. Common Pleas Court Judge Gary DiVito upheld the zoning board's position in March. The neighborhood group is now appealing to the next level, Commonwealth Court, and its attorney, Stanley Krakower, expects to make arguments in the fall.

The problem is, once the zoning board grants a variance to enlarge a building, it is difficult to get the courts to reverse the decision. The board agreed in 2009 to let the Forum raise its roof by three feet. That sounds trivial, but, as theater attorney Ronald D. Patterson told me, the extra height would enable his client to insert a mezzanine and increase the operation's total floor space by about 80 percent.

In any case, size isn't the issue here.

The Forum Theater and its neon-adorned companion, the Les Gals strip club at 2132 Market St., are clearly businesses that have been on life support since the market for porn films shifted to the Web. The venues aren't allowed to serve alcohol, unlike the "gentlemen's clubs" that have invaded Delaware Avenue.

Run by Anthony Trombetta, who was convicted on a federal prostitution-related charge in 1975 and who has a long history of alleged mob ties, the porn houses compensate with snack and soda machines. Had the zoning board not offered to help out the antiquated operation with a variance, these eyesores might have already succumbed to competition from the Internet and fancier clubs. Now the Forum can be revitalized instead.

Perhaps because the prospect of watching pole-dancing in an alcohol-free environment has never been a great business come-on, Les Gals has been the scene of more than just vicarious pleasures. Two women were arrested there for prostitution in 2008, police records show. If recent reviews from an online guide called the Ultimate Strip Club List are to be believed, illicit sex is the main reason for the existence of Les Gals' private booths. It's telling that half the Forum's expansion would be devoted to similar booths, according to building plans submitted to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. How did board members expect them to be used?

That's not the only hanky-panky going on. In an astonishing first-person account of a visit to the Forum Theater in 2007, Philadelphia Magazine's Victor Fiorillo described how he suddenly became aware of "grunts and heavy breathing," not to mention the sound of oral sex, while watching the film. He was propositioned by several patrons - all of them male - before deciding he had done sufficient investigative reporting.

In gratitude to the zoning board for allowing the Forum to expand its offerings, Trombetta has promised to shut down Les Gals, the smaller venue. Trombetta even put the pledge in writing. Yet, strangely, the board failed to include his offer in the legal record, Krakower contends.

Despite Market Street's seedy ambience, residential buildings such as the Murano, 23 Condo, and 2121 Market began colonizing the neglected edge of Center City about a decade ago. Trader Joe's established an outpost kitty-corner from the Forum. By the time the Science Leadership Academy moved to 22d and Arch Streets in 2006, the area was starting to feel like an extension of the Rittenhouse Square area.

In most parts of Philadelphia, porn theaters and strip joints would be prohibited from doing business so close to residences (or, for that matter, to a school like Greenfield elementary at 22d and Chestnut). Since the 1990s, the zoning code has limited "regulated" adult uses to special districts located 500 feet from the nearest home. But because Trombetta's theater has been around since 1975, it is exempt from the rule.

That year, incidentally, Trombetta was convicted on federal charges of transporting women across state lines for prostitution. A decade later, the federal Meese Commission fingered him as Philly's own porn king, and alleged that he had links to the Gambino crime family. Trombetta, who once ran a thriving chain of porn theaters and adult bookstores, did not respond to my request for an interview to discuss issues with the club.

None of this history seemed to bother William Kramer, the city planner who reviewed the variance request, or the zoning board, which voted 3-1 in favor. The board's logic, according to court documents, was that a one big porn palace was better for Market Street than two small ones.

"It was an argument I just didn't buy. What was the hardship?" recalled former zoning board Chairwoman Susan Jaffe, who cast the opposing vote. In supporting the variance, the other Nutter administration appointees - Carol Tinari, Anthony Lewis, and Peter Gonzales - ignored special pleas from City Council President Anna C. Verna and the residents' association to reject the application. The three zoning board members were instructed not to return my calls because the matter was in court, said the board's current chair, Lynette Brown-Sow.

In allowing Trombetta to enlarge the Forum, city planners and the zoning board went hook, line, and sinker for his argument that a consolidated porn operation would benefit Market Street. A few years back, those agencies similarly succumbed to Trader Joe's' claim that it didn't need an entrance on Market Street, a major pedestrian street, because the parking lot was in the back.

Perhaps the Zoning Board of Adjustment doesn't believe porn hurts neighborhoods. It also approved a flashing digital billboard for Club Risque on a site that directly faces the Baptist Worship Center in Bridesburg. Opponents just won a rehearing, set for Wednesday.

In New York, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani won props in the late 1980s for getting the smut palaces out of Times Square and repositioning the neighborhood as a family entertainment district. Here in Philadelphia, Market Street's skid row had to reinvent itself without help from anyone.

And now we have City Hall doing its best to undermine the cleanup.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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