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.
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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.
Emmons and a number of other commissioners said they were going to vote to deny the SUP for a pair of very specific reasons: First, as one commissioner pointed out, "Usually, we don't get anyone here to oppose such things. Today we had quite a few." Second, those "quite a few"—that is, four people—are direct neighbors, whereas the folks who came out in support of the bar don't live in the same block. The only commissioner who spoke in favor of granting the SUP was Michael Davis, who said that normally when people appear in front of the commission with a claim, they have some piece of paper to back it up. All the coalition of four had was their verbal claims. Davis, in fact, had done his own research; there indeed is not one noise complaint on the record.
In the end, Davis' logic wasn't enough. It wasn't even close. And then the commission moved on to some question of a permit for a cell phone tower.
Afterward, Reed said, "The decision is no different to what we recently saw in City Hall," referring to a corruption scandal there. "Bribery, graft and corruption. This is no different." Reed needs the votes of three-quarters of the city council to override the commission's decision.
Reed's conspiracy theory is one I've heard espoused many times, but the plan commission doesn't really appear to be conspiratorial monsters. For one thing, they approved every other Deep Ellum establishment's SUP except minc. That decision was postponed until next week. Still, something's fishy.
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For one thing, back in September, as Robert Wilonsky reported on the Dallas Observer blog Unfair Park, many Deep Ellum business owners had no idea the SUP deadline was looming so closely. Many had to scramble, pulling all-nighters and pushing all other business aside, to fill out a pile of confusing paperwork in a matter of days. Opponents of some of the SUP approvals note that the businesses have a responsibility to find out the appropriate deadlines, which makes it sound as if these club owners are either idiots or blatantly incompetent. Some may be, but all of them? These are people who care about their businesses, who want to stay in business, who want to make a profit. Doesn't it seem logical that they'd be keeping an eye on such things? And, if so, why didn't anyone know about the deadline?
Second: The plan commission did some weird things. Why would the four people speaking against Monkey Bar seem like "a lot," when about 80 or 90 supporters were virtually ignored. Also, how did the commission know that none of those 80 or 90 live in the same building as the coalition of four?
Third, those people had no proof. If you're going to put someone out of business, fucking stay up and sign the complaint.
It must be a weird thing to contribute to shutting down somebody's business, somebody's livelihood. The neighbors didn't seem like evil villains or money-hungry developers—they seem like normal, working folk who just want to get some sleep at night. It's just disjointing to know a few undocumented complaints can close a business. "Look," said Boucher, after I asked him about this, "I'm a small business owner. I respect a lot of small businesses. But I respect businesses that respect other people's rights."