Sorry, Charlie, Too Much Cheer

Silencing a bar that's been coming through loud and queer

Cheer Up Charlies. Photo by John Anderson
Cheer Up Charlies. Photo by John Anderson

A neighborhood disagreement over the interpretation of a sound ordinance further restricts how late Cheer Up Charlies may play music, possibly reducing the East Side late night hot spot to an afternoon-only hangout. Will it – and by extension, the rest of East Sixth Street – be able to survive?

On Tuesday night, August 14, members of the Austin Music Commission met with a local neighborhood organization and the owners of Cheer Up Charlies (CUC) to mediate the ongoing complaints against the E. Sixth club from surrounding residents and to discuss CUC's permit renewal. The resolution was a shocking mandate that restricts CUC's outdoor “amplified noise” to 10am-8pm on Sunday through Thursday and 10am-10pm on Friday and Saturday.

“We came in and offered to reduce our outdoor operating hours to weekends only,” says Tamara Hoover, owner of CUC. "We went in to compromise, but it felt like an attack.”

Amplified noise is defined as all sound that is played through speakers. This included live music, programmed music or music from an iPod connected to speakers. As permits become renewed, the sound ordinance may affect more of E. Sixth St.

Cheer Up Charlies is a bar and live music venue known for its creative drinks, tiny interior, sprawling patios, and eclectic laid-back vibe. It is nestled between the East Side Showroom and 6th and Waller Trailer Park on the 1100 block of East Sixth.

John Plyler lives 455 feet from CUC and is the front man for his neighborhood organization that has frequently complained about the music coming from CUC. “If [Cheer Up Charlies] would abide by the codes then we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with,” he says. “It’s not a decibel level, it’s a curfew thing. Cut and dry.”

It would appear that the neighbors are at odds over the definitions of curfew times and decibel limits, and the city has become the moderator.

For several years, CUC has faced confrontations with Plyler and other residential neighbors over the issue of a music curfew. Last August, when Hoover applied for permit renewal, CUC received city orders to confine amplified sound to 11:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays. At the recommendation of the city's Music Office, Hoover and her team worked to built a costly band shell to keep the music inside CUC and away from the surrounding neighbors.

According to the new permit, the Music Office agrees that the band shell, "has proven very effective at preventing sound from impacting nearby residents." On August 11, the Music Office monitored the sound from CUC and confirmed "that the venue no longer creates a substantial sound impact to their neighbors."

Plyler has lived in the same spot since 1983 and had the same complaints with Ms. Bea’s, the bar in its previous incarnation before it became CUC. He says he receives many calls from elderly neighbors and claims the sound buffers only work some of the time, depending on how the wind blows and only for people living west of CUC. “Tamara has said she wants us to be good neighbors,” says Plyler. “All we ask is that she follow the curfews, but she continues to break them. Three strikes and you’re out.”

Hoover's partner, Maggie Lea, says they don’t break the rules when it comes to live music. “We’ve never had a live band play past curfew. We have DJs or programmed music outside, but it’s easy to control the volume. This is not about sound.”

According to the language of the permit, CUC is zoned as Transit Oriented Development (TOD) while areas around CUC are residential zoned as Single Family (SF-3). Due to last year's ordinance changes, the city may issue sound restrictions for a property within 600 feet of a residential zone.

However, there is a provision in the permit that allows for extended sound hours (10-10 Su-Th, 10-11:30 Fr-Sa) if a business can come to an agreement with its neighboring tenants, neighbors and neighborhood organizations.

Since CUC and its neighbors cannot come to an agreement, the restricted hours have been issued.

“[At the meeting] they compared us to Guëro’s,” says Dustin Gaudet, sound engineer at CUC, referring to the popular South Congress restaurant. “Guëro’s is family oriented, with family oriented hours. It’s a different crowd and a different thing all together.”

According to Hoover, bar receipts prove that most of their customers are late night attendees. “[We make money] between the hours of 11pm and 2am," says Hoover. Restricted hours will likely affect the income of CUC, its employees, and possibly many other East Sixth venues.

But its not just the businesses that may be see reduced profits by the ordinance, local musical acts could be affected, too.

“Many local acts get their start at Cheer Up Charlies,” says local DJ, Jeremy von Stilb. “They let new bands perform there. New bands don't always draw a crowd, so they go where there’s a crowd already. This ordinance would be the end of Cheer Ups, it would become just a bar, and there’s plenty of bars already on East Sixth.”

The ordinance may possibly apply to other venues on the bustling, popular and growing East Sixth Street as their permits come up for renewal. Is this signaling an end to live music on East Sixth?

Currently, the only options CUC have are in community engagement and appeal processes.

“Council members revisit sound ordinances often and encourage citizens to voice concerns or requests during appeals, or council meeting, or by phone calls,” Tamara wrote to her employees after receiving the mandate. “They need to hear your voice, because the only voice speaking up right now is John.”

Don Pitts, the city's Music Program Manager, agrees with the former statement, adding that people can contact City Council and the Music Commission to voice their concerns. He also emphasizes that the permit renewal is not an attack on CUC, but characterizes that it is an enforcement of code that was changed last year by City Council.

In an effort to revisit these ordinances, CUC engineer Gaudet has proposed what he is calling #ACPR, a social media blast acronym for Austin Collective Permit Reform, and that artists, musicians and the community should go to city council meetings to talk about changing the language of these permits.

However, for now the new permit has been issued and is in effect. CUC has been forced to adjust its already scheduled music line-up for the next two months and Plyler vows to stay vigilant to see the club maintains the curfew.

For questions or comments on the new ordinance you can contact Don Pitts at 512/974-7891 or don.pitts@austintexas.gov.
You can find more information on the Austin Music Commission at http://www.austintexas.gov/musiccomm.
For a request to revisit the way the sound ordinance is written, you can contact the Austin City Council, City Managers and the Music Commission.
The next meeting of the Music Commission is on October 1.

What do you think? Comment below.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

East Austin, Cheer Up Charlies, Sound Ordinance, East 6th, Don Pitts, Tamara Hoover, ACPR, E. Sixth Street, clubs, bars, gay bar, decibels

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