Did city look the other way on racy Strip District club?
Complaint about sexual activity at building zoned as fitness center led to threat to close it before well-connected owners met with officials
January 7, 2009 5:00 AM
The entrance to Club Pittsburgh at 1139 Penn Ave.
By Rich Lord and Jerome L. Sherman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A racy Strip District club at which a man died Sunday was threatened with closure by the city of Pittsburgh in August but it was allowed to continue to operate after its politically connected owners approached city officials.
Although Club Pittsburgh is zoned as a health and fitness center, the city initially ordered it to close because of other adult-related activities that didn't comply with its operating permit. The club's Web site has pictures of nude and partially clothed men in erotic poses and a complaint filed with the city claimed there was open sexual activity at the club.
Those owners, Peter Karlovich and Steven Herforth, hold political fundraisers at their Mount Washington home, including one for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in May 2007. When the Bureau of Building Inspection threatened to close the club, they appealed to Council President Doug Shields, and then to the mayor's Chief of Staff Yarone Zober, who connected them with city lawyers.
After talks with the club, the city lawyers told building inspectors to let it stay open pending discussions that never occurred.
Mr. Karlovich, a former technology entrepreneur, said yesterday that there's no problem with Club Pittsburgh, which is geared toward gay men and bills itself online as "a comfortable, clean, safe and friendly environment where you can relax, work out and play."
"It's a private club, just like the Duquesne Club," he said. He said it only got scrutiny because he and Mr. Herforth are prominent. "Because people don't like us -- we have a big house, we're successful in the community, we donate money to charity -- they feel like they have to knock us down."
On June 30, 2008, a resident called the city's 311 help line, saying that she went in seeking a health club, but instead found that "pornographic movies were being displayed. They [sic] were men engaging in live sex acts everywhere. The facility also rents rooms for use," as the city's notes on the complaint put it.
In 2002, building owner Joseph Bellin got a city Certificate of Occupancy allowing him to use the first and second floor of 1139 Penn Ave. as offices for a software company, and the third through fifth floors for a "health and fitness center."
It operated in relative obscurity until Sunday, when police found the body of 31-year-old Cleophus Pettway of Youngstown, Ohio, in a rented room there. The Police Bureau believes he checked in at 3 a.m. that day, and police and paramedics responded to a call from the club nearly 11 hours later and pronounced him dead.
An autopsy was conducted and the results are pending.
Mr. Pettway's mother, Diane Pettway, said her son was working for a tree company that did jobs in Pittsburgh, and left Youngstown around 11:15 p.m. Saturday. She did not know how he died, and said his car had not been recovered.
The June complaint went to zoning and building inspection officials, who, on that date, printed materials from the club's Web site advertising the private rooms, steam room and other services, a "naked go-go dance" and other activities "destined to satisfy your appetite."
In an Aug. 21 letter, the Bureau of Building Inspection ordered the club's owners to "cease and desist all Adult Entertainment uses" including the sale of sexual paraphernalia, the showing of pornographic movies, the renting of private rooms and go-go dancers. The letter told the owners that they must stop those activities, get permission through a public process involving hearings and votes before the Planning Commission and City Council, or have their certificate of occupancy revoked in 30 days. That would have shut the club down.
City Solicitor George Specter and Assistant Solicitor Lawrence H. Baumiller said yesterday the order was appropriate, based on the complaint and Web site.
"It was pretty clear that the purpose of the rooms was not just as changing rooms," said Mr. Baumiller. He also noted there were sales of sexual paraphernalia advertised on the Web site.
After getting the order from the Bureau of Building Inspections, Mr. Karlovich and Mr. Herforth met with Mr. Shields at a Strip District restaurant. In 2007, they had contributed $500 and hosted a fundraising event for his losing bid for city controller.
"I read the law to them," Mr. Shields said. He said the sale of items probably wasn't a big problem, but "the go-go boys are a big no-no here ... And then they said they'd go to Yarone."
Mr. Zober said his involvement wasn't driven by the fundraiser Mr. Karlovich and Mr. Herforth held for the mayor, nor by their personal contributions to the mayor's campaign, which totalled $2,000 that year.
"If I'm contacted by a constituent or a business directly, whether it's on my office phone, or cell phone, or by e-mail, I try to make sure that any issues that are brought to our attention are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties," he said.
He was involved in a series of conversations with the club's owners and their attorney, Richard T. Watling, plus Mr. Specter and Mr. Baumiller.
Mr. Watling, the club owners' real estate attorney, said yesterday that the club was never the scene of the sale or paid screening of pornographic materials, and although there has been "nudity there frequently," the aim isn't to encourage sex.
Mr. Watling said he told city attorneys that the only items on sale are things "that you can get at a CVS," like lubricant. The club has cable television, no different than the Duquesne Club. "If someone changes the channel to the Playboy Channel, does that change the Duquesne Club into an adult mini-theater?" The private rooms aren't for sex, he said, and to his knowledge there are no paid dancers.
He said the city's order was a misunderstanding due to "a Web site that maybe used terms that triggered certain concepts" that weren't really indicative of club activities. He said the city never inspected the club.
On Aug. 29, eight days after the cease and desist order was issued, city lawyers told Bureau of Building Inspection officials that the club owners were going to apply to have the club's activities approved by the Planning Commission and council.
But after a meeting involving the owners, Mr. Zober, and the city lawyers, the city issued a Sept. 11 letter -- crafted by Mr. Specter and Mr. Baumiller -- withdrawing the cease-and-desist order, "with the promise that we will discuss the uses of 1139 Penn Avenue in earnest. If discussions are not handled in good faith, the city may issue another cease and desist order."
Mr. Specter said the city changed its position because the club owners agreed to make "changes in their operations to come into line with the zoning code."
Mr. Specter said the mayor's staff had no input into that letter.
The owners never applied to have club activities approved. There was no further cease and desist order. Mr. Watling said there were no further meetings or discussions, and the club did not alter its activities, other than toning down its Web site.
"We didn't receive any more complaints about the case," said Mr. Baumiller.
The Web site yesterday continued to advertise private rooms, exercise facilities, a "lounge for viewing members' videos," a steam room and other features.
Mr. Specter said it isn't yet clear whether the finding of a body would trigger new action by the Bureau of Building Inspection or the Law Department.
"It's a tragedy," he said. "I think we have to wait and see what [police] find."