Ancient History: 1998-1999
I love music, especially live music. When I moved to the Bay Area
in 1989, that was one of the things I found most incredible about this
place: it seemed like I was seeing a great band about every two weeks.
That's not true any more, and a big part of the reason is that so
many venues have closed. There are far fewer places to see shows, and
because there are fewer nightclubs, the music scene is less vibrant
than it once was.
In 1998, it seemed like every band that I wanted to see was playing
at one particular venue, a terrible place to see live shows. I rarely
went to shows there, because I disliked the space so much. And I
whined about it, a lot. I bemoaned the fact that there were so few
venues that could do justice to a live show, and even fewer that were
booking the kind of music I like.
Finally, one of my friends said, ``why don't you stop complaining
about it and do something about it.'' It hadn't occurred to me that,
in fact, I could just go and do that. I knew it wouldn't be
easy: I was well aware of the fact that the reason that there were
fewer clubs was the current political climate in San Francisco had a
decidedly anti-club slant. But someone had to fight the fight, and it
might as well be me!
I started asking around, and soon learned that the DNA Lounge was
for sale. Over the years, I had seen a lot of great shows at the DNA.
It's pretty much a perfect size for the sort of thing I had in mind
(it's larger than a bar, and smaller than a theatre, a good mid-sized
venue.) However, I hadn't seen any shows there in years: the owners
seemed to have mostly given up on live shows (except for their regular
friday night disco cover band...) It was also in a great location.
I made my first offer on the club in July 1998; there were several
false starts, and it took quite a long time to reach an agreement with
the current owners, but I finally entered escrow in April 1999.
For those of you who have never bought a house, ``escrow'' basically
means that the buyer and the seller have a contract to complete the
sale, provided that certain conditions are met by both parties.
By January 2000, all of the terms of escrow had been met except for
the final one: my successfully negotiating transfer of the permits
to operate the club into my name.
And there's the rub.
You might think that if one is buying an existing, operating business,
and intends to continue to operate the same type of business at the
same address, that getting permits transferred would be pretty much
Sadly, it doesn't work that way: the buyer must apply for all-new
permits, which may or may not be granted. (An explanation of what
permits we're talking about is here.)
So, my business partner Barry Synoground and I spent months trying
to understand the permit situation, and trying to find out the best way
to get our permits. We talked to many different club owners to find
out how they had done it. They had a number of different stories, all
of which ended with, ``but whatever you do, don't do it the way we did
it, because that was a nightmare. There must be a better way.''
For a long time, we thought that it would be possible to actually
transfer the permits: apparently the way this had traditionally been
done in the past was for the new owner to add their name to the old
owner's permits, and keep the old owner on as a minority partner in
the business for a few years. This didn't sound like a great idea
to us, but it did sound easier than going through a full police hearing
and public review. However, it appears that some time in the last
five years (since the last time the DNA Lounge was sold) this loophole
had been closed.
In August 1999, we bit the bullet and turned in our applications
for new permits. We introduced ourselves to the 11th street area
neighborhood residents' association, and gave a presentation about our
plans, and the various ways we planned to make the club be a good
neighbor. That seemed to go pretty well. A few days later, we met
with Captain Martel (the commanding officer of Southern Station, the
SOMA district) and that also seemed to go fairly well. He said that
he would rather that we didn't apply for after-hours permits, and
sounded us out about what kind of compromises we would find
A few weeks later, we got the official police recommendation:
rather than the four conditions that the DNA's old permits had,
these recommendations had fourteen conditions. Most of them
were not objectionable: they were requirements about number of security
staff and various neighbor-relations things, all of which were things
that we were planning to do anyway. But, the kicker was the hours of
operation: They planned to recommend that we be forced to close at
2:00 AM every day except friday and saturday, when we
could be open until 3:30 AM with no new entries after
This was Southern Station's recommendation to the Police
Permit Board. The actual conditions would be decided after our
For some reason I no longer remember, our hearing was delayed once
or twice, and we didn't actually get to have it until late October,
1999. Basically what the hearing came down to was us trying to reach
a compromise with the residents' association. The implication at
the meeting seemed to be that if we could come up with a set of permit
conditions that the residents' association would agree with, then the
police would go along with that. Unfortunately, we didn't get to find
out if that was actually the case, as we were unable to reach a
compromise that was acceptable to both sides.
We asked that we be given a chance to prove ourselves: we believe
that we can run a late-night club without disturbing the neighbors,
and we are willing to make guarantees to that effect. We asked that
we be granted the permits, and if we failed to live up to our promises,
then it would be reasonable for them to further restrict our permits.
The residents kept making statements like ``it is not
appropriate for these clubs to be open past
Since we didn't reach a resolution, we scheduled another hearing
for a few weeks later. That hearing had pretty much the same result.
A month later, in late November 1999, we got the official decision from
the police. Our permits were ``conditionally granted,'' which is to
say, permits for late-night operation were denied. The decision boiled
- Sun-Thu: dancing stops at 1:45 AM, everyone out by 2:00 AM.
- Fri-Sat: everyone out by 4:00 AM, no new entry after 2:00 AM.
- 6 special events per year, until 6:00 AM.
(Possibly with no new entry after 2:00 AM? This is not clear...)
- No in-and-outs: once someone leaves, they must pay full price again.
DNA's then-current permits allowed them to be open until
6:00 AM, 7 days a week. That's 28 hours of late-night
operation per week.
This decision meant that they wanted to reduce our potential
hours of late-night operation from the existing 28 hours per week
to a mere 4 hours, plus an entry restriction that probably cut that
in half anyway.
We decided to appeal this decision, naturally. We scheduled a
hearing with the Board of Permit Appeals for February 2, 2000.
Here is our letter to the
Board of Permit Appeals.
(February? Yes, two months was the earliest we could schedule it.
It should be becoming more clear to you why this process had taken more
than a year already: at every stage, multi-week delays were inserted.
During our conversations with the bureaucracy, each round-trip took at
least three weeks, sometimes longer. The process of conversation is
that one makes a proposal or request, and then the bureaucracy has ``up
to'' N weeks to respond. They never respond early. You get their
reply, submit your rebuttal, and the process repeats. In no time,
months go by.)
On Feb 2, we had our
Board of Permit Appeals, and it went great! The room was at capacity,
with about 200 of our supporters, and about 6 people in opposition. A
representative of the police explained their position, then I made a
speech, which you can read
here; then members of the public spoke out on both sides of the issue.
The official transcript of the meeting is on the
Board of Appeals site.
A lot of interesting things were said, but the bottom line was, the
commissioners voted unanimously (5-0) to overturn the police decision,
and grant us after-hours permits with unrestricted hours of operation
I want to thank all the people who wrote letters, spoke on our
behalf, or just came out. We couldn't have done it without you. This
was an incredibly important victory for us, and for San Francisco night
That was only the beginning of the battle, however: before the
police would grant us the permits, we were still required to comply
with the current soundproofing regulations, which are far more
stringent than the standard to which the previous owners of the DNA
had been held.
This was a huge job: among other things, we had to replace the
entire front wall of the building with 8" of concrete, and given
how much work that was going to be, we found ourselves doing a
major remodel of the club. Our original plan had been to do
light remodel (move the bar, clean up the bathrooms, etc.), open
quickly, and make more improvements as time went on. We originally had
hoped to open just a few weeks after getting the result of the Board of
Appeals. But because of the soundproofing requirements, we had to
embark on a large construction project, and ended up being closed for
more than a year.
However, we made a lot of great changes in that time, and finally
re-opened our doors to the public on Friday the 13th of July, 2001!
Details of the reconstructed club are on our
Stay tuned to the blog
for continuing updates on
the behind-the-scenes operations of the new DNA Lounge!