Plans to open a sex boutique in downtown Oakland near a school and several youth program offices have caused some mixed reactions among neighboring businesses, although opponents seem unlikely to appeal a recent decision by the Oakland City Planning Commission allowing the shop to operate within close proximity to a school.
On December 15, the Oakland City Planning Commission voted 4-0 to grant the boutique a variance permit allowing it to operate within 500 feet of the Oakland School for the Arts, a public charter school for children grades 6–10. Sex shops or other adult businesses are usually required to be outside a 500 foot radius from schools and 1,000 feet away from residential zones.
The boutique, Feelmore510, is set to open its doors to the public by Valentine’s Day at 1703 Telegraph Avenue, formerly home to Wigs by Tiffany. Feelmore510 will be located around the corner and about 235 feet from the school’s Broadway location. In addition, the boutique will be located across the street from the offices of Youth Radio, an organization that teaches media skills to teenagers, and about 220 feet from First Place for Youth, an organization that helps young people transition out of foster care.
Feelmore510 is modeled after Good Vibrations, a female-friendly, sex-positive erotic boutique with locations in Berkeley and San Francisco that sell lotions, sex toys, erotic videos and other adult-themed merchandise. “I want people to think about sex differently,” said Feelmore510 owner Nenna Joiner, who plans to offer erotica and pornography that caters to ethic minorities and positively portrays women, in addition to educational material about healthy relationships and safe sex practices. “I noticed the sex industry caters to more of a white clientele, and people of color are left out.”
Along with retail sales, Feelmore 510 will provide health education workshops and space for local artists to display erotic and sexually suggestive artwork.
The plans have gotten a mixed reception from some of the nearby youth programs. Officials from the Oakland School of the Arts have not responded to phone calls and emails seeking comment, and have yet to make public an opinion regarding the sex boutique. But Youth Radio executives have voiced concerns. “We feel that we would support this business if it was in another location,” said Youth Radio executive director Jacinda Abcarian. “We have kids walking past there all the time. We don’t want to bring anything into the neighborhood that would make our children uncomfortable.”
Abcarian’s biggest concern isn’t Joiner’s plans for the shop itself, but the variance permit allowing the 750-square-foot storefront to operate a business specializing in “adult entertainment activity” within 500 feet of a school. The variance permit does not expire when the current owner decides to leave and is instead permanently associated with the property, making it for difficult for neighbors to control what kind of business replaces it should Feelmore510 vacate the retail space.
Abacarian sent a letter to the planning commission on December 3 detailing her concern that the boutique will one day outgrow its space and allow another less ethical business owner to move in and retain the adult entertainment permit. “It’s not about this specific business,” said Abcarian. “What we’re really worried about is that this is a permanent permit.”
At First Place Fund For Youth, the organization was originally opposed to Joiner’s boutique opening so close to their Uptown location, said executive director Sam Cobbs, but since then he has had a change of heart. “My initial reaction to the to proposition wasn’t a good one,” said Cobbs, who along with some of his colleagues was present at the December 15 public hearing. “After I learned about the restrictions, I was fine with it.”
The variance permit requires some strict regulations outlined by Joiner in her application. According to the conditions of the permit, Feelmore510 must ensure that its merchandise faces away from passersby. It also prohibits the frosting of the windows and the use of video booths. There is also adults-only entry policy, which Joiner plans to strictly enforce.
Cobbs said he had previously worked across the street from Good Vibrations as a program director for Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco and added that the proximity had caused no problems for the youth. He was also sympathetic to the trouble Joiner is having getting a business opened amid resistance. “It’s no different from me having to go before a planning commission trying to open an emergency shelter in a neighborhood where nobody wants it there,” he said.
City officials say that allowing a variance for Feelmore510 will ultimately make it harder for other adult businesses to move into the neighborhood. As a result of this variance permit, any other adult store will have to be opened at least 1,000 feet away. “It’s going to be hard to get a variance for anything that isn’t as good as Feelmore,” said Oakland city planner David Valeska. “In a sense, it has created a protective ring around that neighborhood.”
The closest adult store to the Feelmore510 site is currently located about a mile away in Chinatown.
Feelmore510’s planned upscale decor is that of a low-key retail shop resembling a reading room, rather than the traditional pornography shop with covered windows and interior booths, and it will have an exterior appearance visually similar to the surrounding businesses. That assuaged the concerns of the planning commission’s four-person panel, said Valeska. “They felt comfortable with it because the business model is so restrictive compared to other adult business,” he said.
The public has until 4 p.m. on January 3 to appeal the variance permit to the city council. The odds of a challenge, which costs the appealing party $1,300 to file, are low, according to Valeska.
Joiner says that she plans build a successful and lasting retail business that she hopes to make into an inclusive and positive atmosphere for her clients and the community of Oakland. “I plan to be here for the long run, “ said Joiner, a Las Vegas native who has been living in Oakland for more than 10 years, and has signed a five-year lease on the property. She has produced pornographic films for Good Vibrations, in addition to volunteering as a speaker for San Francisco Sex Information, a hotline providing information and referrals about sex. “This is more than just a sex store, this is a company that understands that there isn’t a business like this in Oakland,” she said.
“Why should all our retail dollars go to San Francisco and Berkeley when we can keep them here?” she added.