Sprinklers could be waived for venue in fire-hazard building

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Crowds gather around the former Crown Room after midnight two years ago when the Old Town nightclub was operating. A new plan would put a vegan strip club in the building.The ongoing conflict on the future of Old Town/Chinatown found a new battleground last week as neighborhood officials reacted to plans to place a vegan strip club in an abandoned site on Northwest Fourth Avenue.

The new strip club has been proposed for an Old Town/Chinatown site that independent fire experts said in a Tribune story last year was too dangerous to inhabit.

“If you take a look at it, it looks like a fire hazard,” says Howard Weiner, president of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association. The proposed club would be situated at the Suey Wing building at 205 N.W. Fourth Ave., which for decades has been home to the Magic Garden, a lounge that showcases nude dancers. The building also had leased space to a series of nightclubs, including the Crown Room, shuttered last year after a series of Oregon Liquor Control Commission violations.

Portland Fire & Rescue inspections during at least six years had noted the building’s many dangers, including deteriorating trusses that help hold up the roof. But the city’s fire marshal insisted that the first floor of the building could still be occupied safely.

Last year the Tribune showed fire inspection records for the building to outside fire experts who said the building should not be inhabited without major structural improvement. The building also lacks a first-floor sprinkler system, but Johnny Diablo Zukle, spokesperson for the group that has applied for a liquor license that will allow the new club to open, says if the city insists, the group will install sprinklers.

The fire danger is not the only objection to the building. “It’s just taking steps in the opposite direction of where the community wants to go,” Weiner says. Old Town leaders recently completed a five-year action plan to revitalize the traditional Chinatown area. Weiner says the plan is based on the idea that some of the abandoned historical buildings will be renovated and filled with retail shops that would bring more daytime vitality to the area.

Stephen Ying, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, called placing another strip club on Fourth Avenue “devastating for Chinatown.”

“I will fight against it,” Wing says. “We might not have the power to stop it, but we can protest.”

Ying says the proliferation of nightclubs in the city-designated Entertainment District is threatening what remains of the historical Chinese nature of the neighborhood. But the Suey Wing building is actually owned by a Chinese tong, or social club, which has agreed to rent space for the strip club.

Zukle says his proposed club is a clear step up from what had previously been in the Suey Wing’s first floor. “If you’re familiar with what was there before, which was a nightclub that had a lot of problems with shooting and violence, we have none of that at my establishments,” Zukle says.

Zukle’s Casa Diablo strip club on Highway 30 has received publicity as possibly the nation’s only vegan strip club. Zukle says the club in Old Town would be similar, with a takeout window for customers who want access to the food without having to enter the club.

As for any delicate balance between clubs and other businesses in Old Town/Chinatown, Zukle says at least his business would be open during the day, rather than just at night. “Maybe we’ll be able to change their minds,” he says.

After the Tribune’s stories about fire danger in some of the Old Town clubs, Fire Bureau Commissioner Dan Saltzman supported a city ordinance that would require sprinklers in many of the city’s nightclubs. But Matt Grumm, Saltzman’s policy manager, says that the club proposed on Fourth Avenue may not need sprinklers installed. The new ordinance, Grumm says, requires sprinklers in nightclubs, but not strip clubs.

The difference, Grumm says, is that nightclubs tend to have large crowds milling about, while at strip clubs most patrons sit at tables.

“We definitely tried to craft that policy to keep people safe without putting people out of business,” Grumm says.

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