Midtown gets its knickers in a knot

With Diva open, neighbors split over business\'s value

By Bill Lascher 12/27/2007

Beth Santillano knows Ventura isn’t a big city, but she also knows Venturans like romance and sex as much as any urbanite, so she was surprised to learn some residents of Midtown Ventura tried to keep her from opening her lingerie boutique in a vacant storefront across the street from the Pacific View Mall.

“I guess I considered Venturans to be a little more sophisticated than they are,” said Santillano, who moved her Diva Passion Boutique from an off-the-beaten path stretch of Laurel Street near Downtown Ventura to a larger space on Telegraph Road near its intersection with Mills Road. “I was a little surprised at the reaction. I honestly was.”

Neighbors like Bruce Tabor, however, were surprised Diva was allowed to move to a space a short walk from three schools and just steps from Adventures for Kids, a popular children’s bookstore.

“Now every pervert in the county can conveniently come into our neighborhood to shop!” Tabor wrote in an email to city councilors that also zinged a bus transfer center and a planned Target store at the mall.

In addition to boudoir apparel, massage oils and lotions, Diva sells a selection of high-end sex toys. Tabor and other residents of a neighborhood the Midtown Ventura Community Council (MVCC) has dubbed “Area 3” — including committee chair Pamela Hazard, Bill and Marilyn Kellar, Katherine Warner and Peter Dibble — all urged the Ventura City Council in November to redraft ordinances regulating the sale of adult products. They had Diva in mind and claimed the store could drive out nearby businesses, lower property values and harm schoolchildren passing the store’s windows, which display mannequins modeling lingerie.

Under the city’s current code, a store can be defined as “adult” if more than 10 percent of its inventory is determined to emphasize or depict specific sexual activities or anatomical areas. The code describes an exhaustive, detailed description of exactly what falls into those categories. Any business exceeding the 10 percent threshold is classified “adult”and faces severe zoning restrictions, while businesses whose products fall below that threshold are treated like any other retail store.

While she never was asked to prove she fell below the 10 percent threshold at her previous location, Santillano does meet its requirements. After the neighbors complaints to the city, though, she had to disclose her entire inventory and its value to city inspectors before they signed off on the store’s new permits. Diva does carry vibrators, restraints and other sex toys, but Santillano said comparisons to adult stores such as Machismo, Three Star Books & News, and Romantix are inaccurate.

“I’m a lingerie boutique first and foremost,” she said. “The adult products that I do carry I choose carefully to go along with the lingerie and what women are looking for. That’s who I cater to, women and couples.”

Santillano said she moved to her new location for better exposure to shoppers visiting the Pacific View Mall, with business at its North end expected to pick up after Target opens a new store. She said many neighbors have welcomed her and some people who live and work near the new location are already customers. Although some of her critics were upset that she shares a wall with Allison’s Country Cafe, Santillano said many diners waiting for breakfast on weekend mornings outside her store have already become new customers.

In fact, some neighbors think it will be a good sign for small businesses in Midtown if Diva can succeed. For example, David Caya — who owns both a home and a business less than a block from Diva — said while neither he nor his wife will likely shop there, he believes it is an improvement on its predecessor, a day labor placement service.

Bernard Ayling — the president of the MVCC — lives around the corner from Diva’s new location and said he doesn’t see a problem with the store, especially because it satisfied the city’s code requirements.

“I want to see more businesses open up in Midtown,” Ayling said. “Those that don’t like this kind of merchandise don’t have to shop there. Live and let live.”

Another neighbor, Cathy Schwemm, has attended some Area 3 meetings and took interest in email discussions her neighbors had about Diva.

“I have to say that I am much less concerned about a valid business such as this that wants to open in Midtown than I am about the impacts of things like the 99-Cents Only Store, which generates huge amounts of trash and traffic, and is of no value to the area whatsoever, as far as I can tell,” Schwemm said. “I don’t want to criticize [Hazard] or the other people that got upset about this because they care very much about Midtown, but I have to wonder if there aren’t some moral issues involved here.”

Tabor doesn’t disagree that there is a moral component to his objection, and said the fact that Diva falls within the 10 percent threshold doesn’t lessen his concern.

“Elementary and middle-school age kids do not need anymore exposure to sexuality than they already get,” Tabor said, referring to the possibility that passing children might get an eyeful in Diva’s windows. “It is just one more indication that morality is on the decline.”

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