By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
About 100 people sat in the gallery of the city council chambers last Thursday at the city plan commission meeting—an oddly high number, considering the commission usually discusses such scintillating subjects as 1-to-1 slope gradations or some shit like that. The audience sat patiently, some clad in lawyerly chinos, others in jeans, others in suits, ill-fitting in that way suits are when rarely worn on an actual human being rather than just a hanger. There were those who wore nice dresses revealing tattoo-coated arms, those with vintage ties, those with hipster hair combed down for the occasion. It was tough to tell the wonks from the punks.
These folks were gathered to comment on what normally would be an arcane piece of bureaucratic minutia—the approval or denial of certain businesses' specific use permits (SUPs). But the SUPs in question are for businesses in a locale that is near and dear to the hearts of many DFW denizens and one that many feel will be the next battleground between large land-development corporations and grassroots efforts in Dallas: Deep Ellum/Expo Park.
The Deep Ellum battles have already begun, of course, but not too many folks were paying attention until the past couple weeks, when the SUP decisions started coming down. Specific use permits basically are city permits that are issued after certain businesses fill out a bunch of paperwork and meet several requirements. The business must turn in its application to the plan commission, which looks into the matter and then makes a recommendation as to whether to approve or deny it. The commission, which is an appointed body, sends its recommendation to the city council. Technically, the council doesn't have to follow the recommendation, but it typically does. When the permit comes up before the plan commission, residents can voice their opinions for or against approval. Denial essentially closes down a business: Sans permit, it would be illegal to continue operation.
At the November 8 plan commission meeting, the one definitive casualty of the day was Monkey Bar, located on Exposition Avenue. Monkey Bar's SUP request was recommended for denial by a 9-3 vote.
It went down like this: His stout body busting out of his blue suit, Monkey Bar owner Michael Reed made an impassioned plea to the commission. "This is a family-owned, family-operated business," he said, leaning across the lectern. Reed seemed to know he was in for a fight, and he had his case well-prepared. Reed said he figured the complaints regarding his bar boiled down to two things: "noise and appearance." Reed then addressed the two, pointing out he had made sure that no amplified music would be allowed on the Monkey Bar patio and all amplified indoor music would cease after 10 p.m. He also noted that in the five years Monkey Bar's been around, there have been zero noise complaints filed at the Dallas Police Department.
As far as the bar's appearance, Reed said, "I've worked very hard—my family's worked very hard—to improve this neighborhood," before submitting 74 letters of support and photos of Monkey Bar.
Then the supporters of Monkey Bar began to speak. When it became clear the 10 or so minutes allotted to commentary would be sorely insufficient, Commissioner Neil Emmons, from District 14, asked those in support to stand up—around 80 to 90 did so. Then comments continued: Photographer Allison Strauss noted that Monkey Bar had hosted her photo show back in June—that it wasn't just a "place for drinking." Another guy said his entire industry—the high-tech industry—had high-tailed it north of LBJ Freeway, but he (and his six-figure salary) had remained close to Deep Ellum for the purpose of enjoying its culture, including Monkey Bar. A guy who lives in McKinney said he makes the drive from up north every weekend to catch shows.
Then something important happened: Emmons asked who lived in close proximity to the bar. About half of the supporters in the gallery raised their hands. Remember that.
Next, the opposition spoke. Four people—by the looks of it, quite a bit older than most in the gallery—awkwardly approached the lectern. The man who appeared to be their leader, 57-year-old Dan Boucher, refuted everything Reed had said. Boucher, who moved into the 3800 block of Exposition well before Monkey Bar opened, cited the "40, 50, 60" times he had called the police to complain about the noise. He cited the "puke on the steps" outside of the bar that sat for two weeks "before the rain washed it away" and patrons throwing bottles and generally raising hell. When asked why there were no police records of his complaints, Boucher noted that for it to count, the complainer must sign a notification paper provided by the cop once he or she gets there, and with low-priority calls, that often takes hours. Considering the late-night nature of his calls, he just opted to sleep. Remember that too.
Of the three other people who spoke, Susan Brant, also of the 3800 block, was the most interesting. A photographer, Brant claimed she "was a Deep Ellum activist" when she had a gallery there from 1981-'87. She loves Deep Ellum so much, she said, she commutes to her job as a professor at Texas Woman's University in Denton every day from her home on Exposition. "I enjoyed many an evening at XPO Lounge," she said, but with Monkey Bar, 2 a.m. rolls around "and my windows still vibrate" from the noise. And thus the somewhat tedious back and forth began, a he said/she said between Reed and his proponents and the neighbors, until finally the vote.