Lizard Lounge Lives, Despite City's Halfhearted Biennial Efforts To Kill It
Photo by Roderick Pullum Moby plays Lizard Lounge's 20th anniversary celebration.
"On the inside, I'm a wreck," Don Nedler confided. He's a baldish, blue-eyed guy in his mid-50s, and from the outside he looked pretty calm. "I didn't sleep last night," he added. "I woke up at 5 a.m. My dogs were looking at me like I was crazy." Although he's been called to these hearings every other year, he says, he's never quite gotten used to them.
Since December 19, 1991, Nedler has owned the Lizard Lounge, the electronica and techno-spinning, famous-DJ-hosting, Goth Night-having club between downtown and Deep Ellum. Before he bought the place, it had been a strip joint called the Gold Club. "I had to appear before the entire City Council and promise I'd never make it into another strip club."
That wasn't a problem for Nedler. But a few years after Lizard Lounge opened, some loft apartments were built within 1,000 feet of the club. Technically, a business that close to a residence is a no-no, even when the business is there first. And because of that rule, every two years or so Nedler finds himself in an odd regulatory no-man's land.
Basically, Nedler has to have two specific permits to run the club, a dance hall permit and a late-hours permit, which enables Lizard Lounge to stay open until four a.m. But because of the proximity of those residences, Nedler's late-hours permit is always denied as a matter of course. The denying agency is the Dallas Police Department's Vice Control Division, which oversees licenses for dance halls, sexually oriented businesses, billiard halls and "amusement centers." (Everything fun, basically.)
So every other year, Nedler and his attorney have to file an appeal and make an appearance before the Permit and License Appeal Board. With the exception of one year in the mid-'90s, when Nedler says they had "a very conservative board," their appeal is always granted. The one year they were denied, he and his lawyer filed a lawsuit in state court, got a temporary restraining order and were granted their late-hours permit the following year.
This is the same appeals board that shut down Afterlife earlier this year after a daylong hearing involving hooded narcotics officers who said the club was "an open-air, free-for-all drug-trading den" with lots of Ecstasy changing hands. But unlike the rather serious legal issues presented by Afterlife, by all accounts Lizard Lounge is exemplary in the way it's run. Nedler says they clean up graffiti and pull weeds around the neighborhood. The cops say they have an unusually low number of police calls. Their neighbors don't have any complaints. But because of the way the city's code is written, Nedler still has to go through the appeals process every single time he renews his late-hours permit.
"It's very nerve-wracking," he said, just before he and his attorney Roger Albright took a seat opposite the board. To win their appeal, they'd have to prove they weren't contributing to "urban decay," were protecting the property values of the neighborhood, abiding by all the rules of the dance-hall ordinance and weren't violating the "spirit" of the late hours rules.
Nedler told them that he has 12 security personnel on staff and pays two off-duty police officers to work Fridays and Saturdays. Security employees also sometimes circulate on the floor undercover. The club had stopped employing the DPD officers for awhile in the tough times following the 2008 recession, Nedler said, but hired them back after noticing what Nedler described as "an uptick in drug activity" last December.
What that meant, as it turned out, was an "ambitious drug dealer," as Nedler puts it, who was both soliciting people to buy Ecstasy and looking for partners to help grow his drug-selling business. Nedler said they eventually found the people who were dealing, issued them criminal trespass warnings in front of the police and told them never to come back.
More disturbing, though, around the same time they also had three incidents in which they suspected women had been dosed with date-rape drug GHB. After all three occurred within 30 days, Nedler said, "We began to suspect we had a predator in the club."
Lizard Lounge responded to the problem by putting up signs warning their female patrons not to leave their drinks unattended or accept a drink from a stranger. There were never any rapes reported, and in all three cases, Nedler said, an ambulance was called by club management.
The city was represented by Justin Roy, an assistant city attorney, and Senior Corporal Robert Krebbs, a detective from vice. Roy opted not to make an opening statement and asked a few brief questions about whether new patrons are allowed in after 2. a.m. (yes) and whether you can buy alcohol after that point (no). Nedler also told him that they've stopped booking some DJs who they concluded "would bring in a less desirable crowd," i.e. the drug-dealing type.
"This permit is really critical for us," he told Roy and the board at one point. They cater to a relatively young crowd, he said. "They come after the movies, after a wedding, after dinner, after servers get off their shift. They don't do happy hour. You could fire a cannon in the club at 11 o'clock at night and not hit anybody."
Teresa Gubbins, a local journalist who's currently a senior editor at Culture Map Dallas, stopped by to speak on Nedler's behalf. She's lived opposite the Lounge for more than a decade, she says, has never had any particular issues with noise, and called Nedler "a great club owner."
"You don't hear any noise between 2 and 4 a.m.?" Roy asked, a little skeptically.
"I don't," she said cheerily. "I would say so. I'm a complainer."
Corporal Krebbs also didn't have any particular complaints about the club, which has had only seven police calls in the last year (all of them from Nedler and other management).
"We really don't have any issues," he said, summing up the whole appeals process pretty succinctly. "I'm just here because we have to deny it."
Finally, a board member moved to grant Lizard Lounge's appeal, a motion that passed unanimously. As he must have done every time for the last 20 years, Nedler looked enormously relieved.