There's nothing about the pink, but otherwise nondescript, building at 2200 University Ave. telling passers-by that it's a bathhouse. Stepping through the garden of potted plants that frames the entrance, I approach the glass window in the lobby and catch the attention of the 50-something man seated behind it.
"Hi," I say, and the man looks up, a little surprised. Surely, the number of women entering the gentlemen-only club is limited. I introduce myself: "I'm working on a story about the trouble you've been having with the city."
"I can't hear you," he says, so I lean in and repeat, this time asking if there's anyone available who will to talk to me about the club.
He leans forward, looks me in the eye and yells, "NO!" I ask for the phone number of the club's owner. He picks up a permanent marker and, with exaggerated pen strokes, writes "NO!" on a piece of paper and holds it up to the glass.
The man's defensiveness likely can be explained by the fact that the 2200 Club, as the North Park establishment is known, has been operating as a bathhouse without a permit for months. Within the next week, the San Diego City Attorney's office expects to file either civil or criminal charges against the club.
Under the city's municipal code, bathhouses can operate only with a permit from the County Department of Health. Among other requirements, the bathhouse must provide facilities for both men and women and may not contain any private rooms. Employees must monitor and report any incidence of "high-risk sexual activity" as defined by city code-in other words, activity that could lead to the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Karen Mitchell, the deputy city attorney investigating the 2200 Club, considers it not a bathhouse but a so-called "adult sexual-encounter business" as defined by city code. According to the code, a sexual-encounter business is any business other than a hotel or motel that has public accommodations for people to meet for the purpose of sex. Such businesses aren't allowed to operate within 1,000 feet of a residential area. The 2200 Club is adjacent to several houses and apartment complexes.
In December, a San Diego Police Department's vice detective investigated the club undercover. According to his report, he saw televisions throughout the club playing male pornography and witnessed two men openly masturbating. The report also noted that club employees distributed condoms to patrons.
The club has a permit for a sauna and a pool but not a permit to operate as a bathhouse. The previous owner had such a permit, but, by law, it didn't transfer to the new owner, who bought the business late last year. Rodney Lorang, who works for the County Counsel's office, said a new permit was denied because the city attorney thought the club wasn't complying with zoning laws.
John Barriage, attorney for the 2200 Club's owner, said the decision is under appeal.
Despite a Jan. 24, 2005, letter from the City Attorney's office to Barriage requesting that the business close voluntarily-a request Mitchell said is not unusual-the club has remained open.
In an interview with CityBeat, Barriage didn't deny that sexual activity occurs at the club but said activities there are no different than what goes on at other bathhouses in San Diego. He said the club, previously known as the Mustang Spa, has operated continuously in the same manner and location for more than two decades.
Barriage pointed to a 1988 dispute in which the city alleged that sexual activity was going on at various bathhouses and tried to impose tighter restrictions. Four bathhouses fought back, asserting the city code was unconstitutional, violating patrons' rights to free association. The dispute ended with the city adding language to the municipal code acknowledging that sexual activity was happening at San Diego bathhouses, that the behavior could lead to the spread of HIV and that measures should be taken to restrict this sort of activity. Oversight, according to city code, was largely left up to bathhouse employees who are supposed to "expel from the premises" anyone engaging in sexual activity.
"The current owners relied on the historical use of the property, which I think has been pretty open and notorious for 20 years, and the fact that the city settled the agreement and dismissed the case even though they alleged those types of activities," Barriage said.
Barriage said he thought homophobia might be a reason for the recent trouble, but Mitchell said the issue is strictly about zoning. If the club were to move to a part of the city where it wasn't in violation of the zoning rules, there wouldn't be an issue, she said.
"These establishments are allowed to exist," she said. "But there's certain criteria they have to meet as far as zoning and that sort of thing."
Currently, two other bathhouses operate in San Diego, but neither is similarly burdened. Sheri Carr, deputy director of the city's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department, said both establishments were operating before the adult sexual-encounter ordinance went into effect and are therefore not held to the zoning code restrictions.
If the city attorney's case is successful, operators of the 2200 Club could face criminal penalties, most likely probation. Civil penalties could include a fine or an injunction that would close the business, Mitchell said.
While some in the community welcome that action, condemning the club as a place where HIV is spread, others say closing such a venue would do nothing to curb risky behavior.
One bathhouse patron, who asked that his name not be used, told CityBeat he believes he contracted HIV after frequent visits to the bathhouse where he engaged in anonymous, unprotected sex. Sometimes HIV status was discussed beforehand, he said, and sometimes it wasn't.
"If the question came up, I was always honest about it," he said of encounters that occurred after he learned he was HIV positive. "But if they didn't ask, then, to me, it was a sign that they either did have HIV already or they didn't and they didn't care."
Closing down these clubs wouldn't make a difference, he said. When the 2200 Club closed last year for renovations, patrons moved to another club or used the Internet to hook up.
Despite such testimonials, some health advocates find bathhouses ideal venues for educating at-risk individuals who may otherwise miss the message.
William Woods, a researcher at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, said that because men who engage in high-risk behavior are more likely to go to bathhouses, the clubs present an opportunity for HIV education and testing.
"Even if most people who go to bathhouses don't engage in high-risk behavior, it's a place where you can reach guys who do," he said, explaining that bathhouses have long been a part of gay culture, serving as a place for individuals to meet socially and sexually.A recent study of Los Angeles bathhouses found that 91 percent of participants went to the clubs for sex; almost half named boredom as a reason for going, and 20 percent said they went to see friends.